by Jonna Parker, Principal, Fresh Center of Excellence, Circana

This summer, Americans are even more fired up than usual for grilling season. In a May 2023 Circana survey, 67% of shoppers said their summer entertaining plans include a cookout or barbecue. And 42% plan to do more outdoor entertaining at home than last summer. Grilling season offers tremendous potential for grocers — but it’s not an automatic path to increased share and sales. Only retailers that can truly understand and meet changing consumer demands will make the most of this opportunity.  

Circana data shows that trip frequency to any retail outlet for fresh foods was up 2.1% from May 2022 to May 2023. Consumers are visiting more stores, more often and buying less per trip — and traditional grocers are continuing to lose market share in fresh to other retail channels.  

A look at Circana’s household scan panel data total year-over-year combined fresh food sales across all outlets shows that traditional grocers slipped from 42.1% market share in 2020 to 39.2% in year to date through May 21. At the same time, the perceived value of mass and supercenter stores helped that channel gain share from 17.9% to 20.1% over the same period.

Interestingly, specialty stores such as butcher shops, cheese shops, and local produce markets have also seized share — going from 4.9% to 6.3% over the same period. Even amid inflation, people are heading to specialty markets to purchase a few key items to dress up their meal.

These trends emphasize that while value is important, so is quality and selection when it comes to grilling. Outdoor entertainment is important to families of all income brackets — and something they’re willing to spend money on even if they’re cutting back on summer travel and other expenses. Here are six ways that grocery stores can make the most of this year’s grilling season:

  • Get your everyday versatile quick-cut offerings right to keep shoppers in the store. Among all fresh meats, only chicken and exotic meats gained in 52-week pound sales year-over-year in May 2023 versus year ago. Ground beef, chicken, pork, and lamb all also gained in pound sales over the same period. It’s important to offer good availability and competitive everyday pricing on the most versatile and affordable meats: chicken and grinds. If they don’t shop you for everyday meats, it makes it even harder to draw the grilling occasion trip. Retailers can also use these everyday meat cuts to incent people to try grilling favorites as well through buy-this-get-that promotions.
  • Educate and entice those who’ve invested in grilling. In a May 2023 Circana survey, 31% of shoppers say they have a new grill, 6% have a new smoker, and 24% say they have a new or improved outdoor eating area. Most importantly, 34% say they like trying new foods and recipes on the grill. Grocers can meet this demand for new ideas and escapism by promoting different cuts of meat and giving shoppers new grilling-focused recipes and meal ideas. Both in-store and out of store education materials that speak to how to be successful on the grill can help. When you’ve invested in new cooking methods for your home, you also want to invest in your own ability to use them — and grocers and brands can be the trainer.
  • Go beyond temporary price promotion. Promoting grilling cuts with feature ads and shelf-set price reductions has been the mainstay grilling-season playbook for traditional supermarkets. So far in 2023, both within the meat department and across the store, promotional lifts are not driving incremental volume as effectively as past years. Many retailers are also promoting the same products, especially in meat and produce, on the same weeks due to commodity market swings and availability. But price promotion cannot be the only way to drive sales — and it’s not changing the tide of leaking market share to other everyday low price and experiential retail outlets. Digital ads are an opportunity to capture shoppers before they’ve decided where to buy and has the added benefit of being able to target specific consumers. Circana’s research has found that purchase-based digital advertising can offer four times higher return on ad spend than interest-based social and digital media targeting. During grilling season, we need to drive people to the store as much as help them decide what to buy when they are there.
  • Cross-promote to deepen the occasion-based basket. Over the past year, center-aisle bread, buns, and rolls trail only chicken among fresh foods in absolute dollar growth. They can also play a role in elevating burger and sausage grilling occasions. Likewise, beverage alcohol has the highest frequency increase of any major category over the past year — and should be featured in your cookout marketing. Fresh fruit is yet another beloved cookout staple, and mixed fruit and veg trays are already growing year-over-year so far in 2023. Cross-promoting all of these items can be a way to use grilling occasions as an opportunity to build bigger baskets that begin with meat as the anchor.
  • Better serve convenience shoppers too. Our May Circana survey found that most shoppers prefer to make their own grilled foods and sides from scratch. But deli pasta salads are up 12.4% in dollar sales and 4.1% in volume sales over a year ago. Instead of trying to turn scratch cookers into convenience shoppers, grocers can boost sales by giving convenience shoppers more quality sides — like unique deli pasta salads that would be tough to make themselves at home — that they’ll feel confident taking to a cookout. There’s also opportunity to further promote grilling itself as a convenient way to home-cook a better chicken or burger meal in minutes.
  • Understand and respond to changing shopper needs. Grocers won’t stand out during grilling season by promoting potato chips, beer, corn, and whatever’s cheap on the commodity market. Because that’s what everyone else is doing. What does work is using consumer sentiment, point-of-sale, and panel data to truly understand shopper needs — and respond effectively in real time.

Through a combination of these strategies, grocers can maintain the meat sales they rely on as a store anchor — and also maximize the tremendous power of grilling season as a total-store opportunity.

Get insights straight to your inbox