Q&A with PBFA: Opportunities for Plant-Based Foods in Retail with Julie Emmett

PBFA’s Senior Director of Retail Partnerships Julie Emmett is in high demand. Her focus at PBFA is helping retailers with best practices for education and merchandising strategies to expand plant-based foods in their stores. We have expanded our work with retailers exponentially in the past year and this interview captures some of Julie’s insights.

What is the biggest barrier for retailers when it comes to incorporating more plant-based options in their stores?

As plant-based food sales continue to skyrocket, there is a growing need for collaboration between departments to align on a strategy for placement, space allocation as well as promotion, and assortment. New plant-based options are coming to market so frequently that retailers are struggling with where to place these innovative foods across the meat, dairy, frozen, and produce departments. While we know shoppers who identify as vegan or vegetarian are likely to seek out plant-based foods, the flexitarian shopper – who is really the target for most retailers – may not be able to easily find these options if they aren’t placed where shoppers expect to find them.

What advice would you give retailers looking to expand into plant-based foods?

Leaning into plant-based foods means tremendous potential growth for retailers. Looking at the retail data for plant-based foods in 2019, we see that total stores sales are flat while animal-based foods still represent the majority of store volume. By leaning in, I mean expanding space for by discontinuing other items to make more space, items that may have higher volume but are not as strategic or poised for growth. Calculate the risk by properly promoting plant-based foods to ensure success. The challenge is meeting overall sales goals during this balancing act.

How is PBFA’s work helping to solve retailer’s challenges?

PBFA is partnering with Kroger and Hannaford, among many other retailers, to address their individual struggles. With Kroger, for example, we’re conducting research in the form of control store tests and shopper marketing. We also conduct instructive webinars and hold lunch and learns to inform and shape the industry with sound research insights. Our ultimate goal is to help guide merchandising decisions and ultimately satisfy their shoppers’ needs by making it easier for them to find plant-based foods, while expanding shelf space for the brands.

How important is in-store education for retailers?

Right now, we really need to educate shoppers as well as store personnel about plant-based food offerings. Many factors contribute to a consumer’s willingness to pick up a new plant-based food they’ve never tried before. While price is certainly a factor, there is also an education component for some shoppers. If a customer picks up a package of tempeh or seitan, for example, they may not know what these foods are made of – which is where store personnel come in. PBFA has worked with retailers to design plant-based food primers for their staff so that when someone asks, “Do you carry dairy-free yogurt?” they can answer with confidence. Receiving that answer could be a tipping point for a new plant-based shopper. We want plant-based foods to be successful, for the sake of brands, retailers, and the end consumer, and for that to happen, we need some baseline education throughout stores.

What is the biggest opportunity for retailers in plant-based food?

For retailers to create an annual strategic collaborative plan with their vendor partners, investing in plant-based foods in a way that supports each of their go-to-market strategies. Retailers can leverage shopper insights and loyalty card data to support decisions to expand shelf space and assortment where it makes the most sense – while at the same time, being bold! Many are taking calculated risks that are paying off. Retailers should never underestimate the power of signage to help shoppers more easily discern plant-based foods from their animal counterparts. This is something PBFA is hoping to do a lot more of in 2020 and beyond.

You can find more information about Julie’s work to expand plant-based foods in retail, here. If you’d like to support this important work, please consider donating to our Fall in Love with Plant Based campaign here.

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