It’s nearly summer and the living (not to mention the grilling) should be easy. Yet, the combination of rising food prices and changing consumer habits are impacting a key selling season that has remained reliably unchanged for years.
But, the good news is, it remains as popular as ever. According to Mintel, 49% of consumers look to cooking outdoors as an affordable way to prepare meals. Ipsos research, meanwhile, suggests the barbecue was the top-growing dinner appliance for meal preparation in 2022.
For grocers, this means grilling shoppers are valuable shoppers. According to proprietary research conducted for McCormick & Company by Caddle, they deliver 2.5 times more dollars than the average grocery shopper.
While grilling classics like steak, burgers and chicken breasts continue to be mainstays, Ipsos research finds changing consumer tastes are also having a pronounced effect on the category.
Ran Goel, CEO of Fresh City Farms in Toronto, points to several emerging factors that grocers need to consider for this grilling season including, but not restricted to, a growing consumer preference for convenient, ready-to-go fare.
Consumers are also increasingly seeking what Goel describes as “clear, straightforward communication” that educates them on the value of products, as well as growing interest in cleaner ingredient lists, nitrate and preservative-free products, and items with low or no sugar.
Canadian Grocer spoke with experts across the entire food ecosystem, from retailers to food and beverage companies, to get a sense of what grocers should expect for the 2023 grilling season. Here’s what they told us.
Giving them the pork shoulder
Though rising costs have been singled out as the primary cause that’s driving change in consumer behaviour, Vince’s Market president Giancarlo Trimarchi says purchasing decisions are complex and influenced by a multitude of factors beyond price, such as taste preferences, dietary needs, and cultural and ethical considerations.
However, one of the by-products of rising meat prices is that customers are looking to cheaper cuts that tend to do well in a low and slow cooking environment, such as brisket, pork shoulder and chuck roast.
“They can be more budget-friendly and provide a lot of flavour when cooked properly,” says Trimarchi. “These cuts are also ideal for cooking in a slow cooker or smoker, which can help tenderize the meat and make it more flavourful.”
It’s the time of the seasoning
Citing internal research, Traci Wildish, vice-president of Canadian sales and North American retail operations with McCormick & Company, says more than three-quarters (77%) of consumers are looking to try new flavours of seasoning blends, while 60% are seeking low-sodium options.
READ: McCormick announces 2023 Flavor Forecast and inaugural Flavor of the Year
Canadians are also demonstrating what Wildish calls a “strong preference” for homegrown products across key barbecue categories such as spices and condiments, with clean ingredient labels also of continued interest to consumers.
“Grillers are motivated by versatile flavours and express a desire to try new products – especially when they are entertaining,” says Wildish, adding that the grilling category, in particular, is trending towards smoky and savoury flavours. Trimarchi says in recent years there has been “growing interest” in experimenting with different flavours for sauces and marinades. Old-school flavours like barbecue and teriyaki still dominate the category, he says, but consumers are also increasingly willing to try something different.
There is also growing consumer demand for plant-based sauces and marinades, including vegan barbecue sauces and teriyaki sauces made from ingredients such as soy and mushrooms. The use of fresh herbs and spices is also becoming more prevalent, he says, “providing a healthier and more flavourful alternative to store-bought options.”
What are you, chicken?
Chicken remains one of the most versatile and affordable choices for grilling, as suggested by its enduring popularity. Per capita consumption of chicken totalled 34.5 kilograms in 2021.
Lauren Kennedy, director of public affairs and communications with Chicken Farmers of Canada, says one of the by-products of higher food prices is consumers purchasing more whole chicken because it has greater value, and the ability to transform it into multiple meals and chicken stock.
Chicken Farmers of Canada also noted marked growth in pre-marinated products like kebabs and chicken breasts.
Hot, hot, hot
Rosie Di Matteo, demand science manager with Conagra Brands Canada, says spicy sauces are growing in popularity as grilling season approaches, particularly among “foodie millennials.”
According to Mintel data from 2022, half of consumers aged 25 to 34 used hot sauces in the past six months. The sauce and condiments category is also being driven by a growing appetite for global flavours, particularly among younger Canadians.
According to Di Matteo, more than half (52%) of foodie millennials have tried a new flavour, with Asian flavours a particular favourite. “Sauces that offer Asian cuisine flavours and/or spicy flavour profiles will be emerging trends in the condiments and sauces aisle for at-home summer barbecues,” Di Matteo explains. Sauces offer a simple way to change up flavours and can perform particularly well when they are merchandised near meat, says Di Matteo.
READ: As consumers embrace global foods, grocers look to diversify their offerings
Consumers can feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of sauce options available to them, she says, and it’s up to retailers to provide some guidance.
“Retailers should look to provide new ways of helping consumers make easy choices and utilize their go-to ‘staple’ ingredients for an easier experience,” she says. “Sauces are a great way to change-up flavour and perform well when merchandized near meat.”
Trimarchi says consumers are also seeking more exotic and international flavours such as Korean gochujang (a red chili paste that also contains glutinous rice, fermented soybeans, salt and occasionally sweetener), Middle Eastern harissa (a smoky-spicy North African hot chili paste made with roasted red peppers and Baklouti peppers) and Jamaican jerk.
Like most food categories, inflation is also having a “ripple effect” on beverage alcohol, says Kyra Dietsch, marketing and communications manager and master beer sommelier with Muskoka Brewery.
One of the tactics the Ontario-based brewer is using to circumvent the challenges created by inflation is offering consumers an improved value proposition through new 568-millilitre cans for its signature light lager Tread Lightly. “[Those cans] are over 20% larger than the traditional 473-millilitre cans, and by doing that we’re offering value to the consumer,” explains Dietsch. “It’s a little more bang for your buck and more of a value purchase.”
READ: Three trends to watch in beverages
Another product Muskoka is releasing this year is a tropical IPA made using calamansi, a Filipino citrus that is described as a combination of lemon, lime and orange.
“I love to try different fruits and foods, and seeking out these unique citruses has been so interesting,” says Dietsch. Citrus-inspired flavours within the beverage alcohol space are growing in popularity, she says. “You go to the grocery store in Canada and you’ve got your lemon, lime, mandarin and tangerine, but you look to different Asian countries and they’ve got a wider variety of fruits I haven’t heard of.”
Master of merchandising
Trimarchi at Vince’s Market says there are several techniques that can help build product awareness and sales during grilling season, beginning with display. To be effective, it must be eye-catching and showcase the products required for a successful grilling experience such as grills, charcoal, utensils, sauces, marinades and meats.
At Vince’s, the merchandising team uses bright colours, signage and images of sizzling food to attract attention and inspire consumers to make the necessary purchases. It’s best to start using these tactics early in the season to ensure strong sell-through and repeat purchases, as well as to establish customer favourites, says Trimarchi.
Teresa Spinelli, president of Alberta’s Italian Centre Shop, says there are several ways to merchandise grilling items, including presenting recipes featuring the various showcased ingredients.
“We also had ready-to-go items close so, if you don’t want to make a pasta salad, we’ve made it for you,” she says. “And we have the recipe if you want to make it yourself the next time.” She says Italian Centre Shop plans to put portobello mushrooms (“in my opinion the best plant alternative”) close to the steaks and sausages as a way of encouraging shoppers to try something new.
Spinelli says calling out organic or grass-fed products as such helps consumers recognize it’s different. The store’s Piedmontese beef, for example, is grass fed and cooks 30% faster than other beef.
With convenience also key for many customers, Vince’s Market spotlights grill-ready meal solutions featuring pre-marinated meats, vegetables and seasoning. Trimarchi recommends prominently displaying those kits, and offering options suitable for different tastes and dietary needs. Vince’s also cross-merchandises complementary products in its meat department.
“Our value-added fresh-made products like tzatziki and hummus with souvlaki and kebabs are always a success,” he says. Introducing pre-sliced and packed cheese with fresh burgers has also proven to be a successful tactic.
This article first appeared in Canadian Grocer’s May 2023 issue.