Internet Beef Is Taking Advantage of Not-So-Hot Supermarket Meat

Online stores have seen a major increase in demand for top-of-the-line beef such as wagyu.


By Larissa Zimberoff, Bloomberg 

January 4, 2019


Plant-based cuisine was one of the biggest food trends of 2018. At the same time, beef sales were massive. Nielsen has reported that beef saw the biggest change in U.S. sales in the past few years, with almost 11 percent more pounds sold in 2018 than in 2015. Beef consumption is expected to continue to rise, to 58.8 pounds per person in 2019, 2.8 percent higher than last year, according to forecasts from the Cattle Site.


While 55 percent of Americans still buy their meat at full-service markets, a growing segment is shifting to the internet to find more specialized products. Online meat purchases have jumped from 4 percent in 2015 to 19 percent in 2018. There are three main reasons: Customers are looking for a product that’s higher-quality, sustainable, and traceable.


So while traditional retailers such as Kroger, Albertsons, and even Whole Foods have done little to innovate—course-correcting a brick-and-mortar chain is slow business—consumers are now a click away from the finest-grade beef and the most esoteric cuts, with that pinnacle of fat-marbled decadence, wagyu, leading the charge. Google searches for “wagyu beef” have more than tripled in the past four years.


“It was just a couple years ago that we would constantly get the ‘What is wagyu?’ question from consumers and cattlemen. Those days seem to be behind us,” says George Owen, executive director of the American Wagyu Association.


A quick wagyu primer: Although many people think it’s strictly a Japanese export, American wagyu dates back to the 1970s, when animals brought over from Japan were crossed with domestic breeds such as Angus and Holstein. Today’s American wagyu is predominantly crossbred with some, but not many, full-blood wagyu. Many believe that full-blood, Japanese-heritage wagyu has higher marbling and a richer flavor than its American counterpart. (Kobe beef is also from wagyu cattle but can only come from specific breeds from Japan’s Hyogo prefecture. Beware the words “Kobe-style.”)


The arbiter of our country’s meat quality has long been the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The government agency’s top rating is USDA prime, which comes from young beef cattle (traditionally grain-fed) with abundant marbling. But you won’t find much at your local supermarket. Instead, most markets offer a meat counter stocked with basics (with occasional nods to organic, grass-fed, or antibiotic-free) and a freezer stocked with commodity cuts such as ground beef and rump roast.


“Stores have a hard time modifying presentations for each category of shopper and instead stick to the one-size-fits-all option. More importantly, there’s no longer one meat consumer,” says food-retailing expert Anne-Marie Roerink, of 210 Analytics. Price dictates in-store meat purchases 33 percent of the time; appearance comes in at 26 percent, according to her 2018 Power of Meat survey.


“In the end it’s about limiting shrink, which is the percentage of items that go unsold, while maximizing sales,” she says. Shrink is a problem online can ignore, since products are shipped frozen.


In her survey, Roerink reported that 53 percent of shoppers buy meat at the supermarket for the speed and convenience it provides. When we shop online, we can spend hours learning the minutiae of animal husbandry, flavor profiles, and cooking methods.


Carrying niche products such as wagyu is a difficult stance for markets to take, says Darren Seifer, executive director at market researcher NPD Group. “Space is limited, and everything needs to fly off the shelves,” he says. “Online is more about what your distribution can handle.”


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