Meat and poultry shoppers are becoming an increasingly fussy group. With such factors as price, convenience, wellness and sustainability on their minds, more consumers are seeking precise varieties of proteins, including packages with specific portions.

In fact, 57 percent of shoppers say that portion control has an influence on their purchase behavior, reports the Nielsen Perishables Group, a Chicago-based fresh foods consulting and research firm.

That strong interest in package size can be both a blessing and curse for merchandisers. While a wide range of meat and poultry portion alternatives can generate greater meat department activity, it also adds to the retailer’s burden of having to market a greater assortment of selections in a case with limited space.

Baby Boomers and Millennials are two key consumer segments placing a higher value on portion control, with many of the shoppers looking for smaller and individual portion sizes. As Baby Boomers become empty nesters, for instance, there is less need for larger packages of meat and poultry.

Many Millennials (people born after 1980 and the largest consumer category), meanwhile, are single or on a tight budget and seeking smaller packages of proteins that are more affordable. Others who are environmentally conscious eschew larger packages to avoid the prospect of food waste or adding trash to the environment.

“Millennials are going through different life stages, with many just coming out of college and getting their feet on the ground and more are nutrition conscious,” says Michael Uetz, principle at Midan Marketing, a Chicago-based meat and poultry marketing and market research firm. “They want smaller packages and portions that tend to be less expensive and they also like variety of products, such as those with different seasonings or marinades.”

Because they often have small households and seek diversity, Millennials also tend to shop for individual items for one or two meals at a time, leading them to favor packs with limited portions, he says.

A way to wellness

Research this year by Midan Marketing also reveals that health is a priority for Millennials and Baby Boomers and is having a major impact on the amount of food they consume and the portion sizes they seek.

Forty-five percent of Millennials surveyed indicate they are prepared to make sacrifices to maintain their health, while 50 percent of Baby Boomers note that they watch what they eat and 34 percent consider themselves very health conscious.

“Women of varying ages are also interested in portion control, as they tend to be weight-conscious and are making decisions based on calorie content versus nutritional value,” Uetz says.

The Power of Meat 2016 report shows 81 percent of consumers regularly or occasionally cut down on portion sizes as part of their healthy eating strategies. Published by the Arlington, Va.-based Food Marketing Institute and the Washington, D.C.-based North American Meat Institute, the Power of Meat 2016 includes data from a November 2015 online survey of 1,360 adults who mirror the U.S. population.

In addition to health concerns, an overall shift in eating behavior also affects portion size, says Anne Mills, manager of consumer insights, for Technomic Inc., a Chicago-based food industry research and consulting firm.

“With the proliferation of snacking, smaller and lighter meals are becoming more common and are creating demand for smaller and mini portions,” she notes. “The future also will be about providing consumers with choice, such as a full size portion of an item as well as a smaller portion to meet the demand of those who want something less at a lower price.”

Simplicity, likewise, is a major trigger for portion control as many busy consumers don’t have the time to divide up larger portions of meat and poultry or to freeze excess proteins for use at a later time, Uetz says.

“Convenience is always the main factor in shopper purchase behavior,” states Harry Balzer, a Chicago-based food trends analyst and the former chief industry analyst for the NPD Group Inc., a Port Washington, N.Y.-based consumer market research firm. “Consumers can always get money in some fashion, but they cannot always get time so they are looking at how they can make their life easier, which manifest in making easy meals.”

Cost is a concern

Financial concerns also are helping to fuel the greater shopper interest in portion control, with singles, lower-income households and Millennials all emphasizing total package cost over price per pound, the Power of Meat 2016 shows.

“When beef prices are high, a smaller portion size might be more appealing because consumers could still eat a piece of steak but at a lower cost,” Mills says. “Affordability is a major factor.”

Yet the development of packages in different portion amounts also can potentially drive up the retail price of proteins.

Offering meat and poultry in various quantities, for instance, requires the use of more packaging and labels, which can increase retailer and processor expenses and result in the parties passing the costs on to  consumers, says Sarah Schmansky, Nielsen Perishables Group director of business operations.

Smaller portions of meat and poultry typically also have a higher per pound price than larger bulk packages. While purchasing lesser quantities might reduce the overall ticket size, a greater base rate could alienate potential purchasers, Schmansky says.

“The challenge for retailers and suppliers is maintaining an acceptable price per pound ratio,” she notes. “Consumers will pay more for antibiotic-free chicken, but will they pay more for smaller portions?”

No easy feat

Another concern is the trend toward larger meat and poultry carcasses, which is making it more difficult for processors and retailers to cut and merchandise products in packages of varying, and particularly smaller, sizes, Uetz says.

Having to create room in a crowded meat case for more packages of different portions, meanwhile, is an additional burden. Many retailers are already taxed by the need to carry additional SKUs because of greater shopper interest in specific varieties of meat and poultry, such as organic, grass fed, and seasoned and marinated products, he says.

“The meat department is not getting any larger and offering extended package sizes takes up valuable case space,” Uetz says. “For this reason, it’s more vital than ever that the meat industry understands who their customers are at each store and to personalize the case so they provide the products that meet customers’ needs in the available space.”

Because the most successful retailers offer the package sizes that are most in demand, Uetz adds that it is vital that they consistently listen to consumers’ needs and the factors that ultimately will drive their purchase decisions.

Nevertheless, while retailers and processors must deal with a host of production and merchandising issues to support portion control, it is a movement that is set to become more prominent.

“As seen in the last five years, there continues to be a lot of demand for a variety of package sizes,” the Power of Meat 2016 shows. “The impact of the smaller household size is further reinforced by the shift in the role of meat and poultry as a meal ingredient versus a center of the plate item.”

Uetz says portion control will gradually shift from being just a trend to an ongoing consumer focus that meat and poultry sector must address.

“The focus on health and sustainability will remain a priority; the population will continue to age; and single-person households are increasing,” he says. “All these combined with consumers’ busy schedules, having less time to cook and their interest in convenience will impact how meat is packaged for them.”  NP