Shifting gears: Despite COVID-19 challenges, lamb retail sales and changes to marketing strategies have seen success
The COVID-19 pandemic has had many strong impacts on the American lamb industry. However, the American Lamb Board (ALB) is encouraged by the strong and continuously growing non-traditional markets, including ethnic markets, direct consumer sales and online lamb sales programs.
During the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) Annual Convention held virtually Jan. 28-29, Megan Wortman, the executive director of ALB shares how the lamb checkoff has had to adjust due to the pandemic and how it continues to promote American lamb.
“It has been devastating to lose foodservice sales related to the shutdowns,” shares Wortman. “Foodservice sales represented approximately 50 percent of American lamb sales, especially rack and premium cut sales. This market was essentially lost overnight and sales are still way down.”
According to Wortman, fine dining, hotels and cruise ships where lamb is primarily sold have been hit the hardest may not survive the pandemic, as lamb is a hard sell for take-out. Additionally, lamb is most popular during winter months and without the ability for outdoor seating with colder weather, some restaurants have taken a winter break.
Wortman shares they are continuing to support fine-dining venues, while also looking for different lamb markets in other segments of food service with strong take-out programs, such as fast-casual restaurants and Mediterranean chains.
As the pandemic continues, many lamb producers have looked for different ways to market their products. In fact, Wortman notes while sales in ethnic markets are booming, direct-to-consumer sales through farmers markets and new online outlets are very popular and have seen success.
The good news, she notes, is retail lamb sales have increased according to retail scanner data. From March 15 to Aug. 9, retail lamb sales in 2020 increased 30.5 percent in dollars and 20.8 percent in volume with an additional 4.6 million pounds of lamb sold over the same time period in 2019, and ALB fall reports show continued strong growth.
“Often, consumers were picking up lamb for the first time,” shares Wortman. “It might have been what was left in the meat case early on during stockpiling, but we know through retail scanner data a lot of people picked up lamb for the time and have been back to purchase lamb again.”
“We have been so impressed by our industry’s innovative responses and finding new ways to get American lambs to consumers,” she continues. “We are also really encouraged by the strength of retail sales.”
ALB is looking at consumers preparing more meals at home as an opportunity for American lamb. Lamb provides an outlet for experimental cooking, comfort foods, new flavors and nutritious choices, says Wortman.
“Retail lambs sales are up because consumers are cooking more at home for obvious reasons,” she adds. “This is creating more confidence in the kitchen and a willingness and time to try new things, including more adventurous, complex dishes like lamb. This is becoming our new ‘norm’ and a huge opportunity for American lamb.”
Virtual events to support retail consumers, food influencer partnerships and multiple social media campaigns are a few of the new marketing strategies ALB has taken on to promote the importance of sourcing American lamb.
February hosts Lamb Lovers Month, a social media campaign aimed at promoting the versatility of lamb, highlighting date-night lamb recipes and drawing prizes. Following Lamb Lovers Month, ALB will launch an outdoor cooking adventures campaign.
“Outdoor cooking has increased through the pandemic since outdoor entertaining allows for safe social distancing,” notes Wortman. “The more consumers cook at home, including outdoors, the more they will look for new flavors and recipes. We hope this campaign will make lamb more accessible and interesting to a new consumer audience.”
Averi Hales is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.