Moving meat-free products to shift shopping habits

Prominent positioning of meat-free items in the meat aisle increased sales of plant-based products, though there was no reduction in meat sales. 

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The National Food Strategy launched in England last week. It recommends that meat consumption in this country be cut by 30% by the end of the current decade and that this target can be achieved by nudges to behaviour. 

We have been working with a major supermarket in the UK to see if relocating meat-free products into the meat aisle, making them more prominent, could provide such a nudge and shift purchasing behaviour. Although we saw no reduction in sales of the meat items we compared to their plant based alternatives, there was an increase in purchases of meat-free items, particularly in stores in average or less well off areas. Our study has been published in PLOS Medicine.

Our food choices are influenced by our environments, and there is growing evidence that product placement strategies in food retail environments can influence dietary behaviours. At LEAP, we have been looking at how influences can be capitalised on to help people decrease meat consumption for healthier and more sustainable diets. 

Research has shown that when plant based dishes are presented in a separate "vegetarian" section of a menu, they do not get picked as much as when integrated into the menu, or if they are highlighted as "chef's special". Elsewhere, researchers who increased the number of plant-based choices at a cafeteria buffet saw more vegetarian and less meat based meals purchased by consumers. 

Could similar results occur in a supermarket environment? We worked with 108 stores, 20 of which moved a selection of 26 meat-free products into bays within the meat aisle, the others acted as controls. The stores shared with us their sales data so we could compare average weekly sales of all meat products as well as of meat-free products for two twelve week periods - the first to get a baseline and the second to see what happened when products were moved into their new home.

Though there was no significant difference in meat sales, those of equivalent meat-free products increased in the intervention stores by about 31%, particularly sales of meat-free burgers, sausages and mince. In the control stores there was a 6% increase in sales of meat-free items. 

Our research contributes to a small but growing body of evidence around in-store interventions to change food purchasing patterns toward health and sustainability goals. Moving products around in store, and redesigning microenvironments could help shift consumers’ habits towards plant-based foods, though structural changes to explicitly focus on a reduction in meat purchases may be needed to reduce the demand for meat.

Our protocol is registered here