The changing face of meal kits

Meal kits today come in all shapes and sizes. From diabetic-friendly to vegan options, makers and retailers alike are pulling out all the stops to cater to a growing group of consumers seeking the unique experience and convenience that meal kits offer.

Not only is the meal kit industry beginning to shift from online subscription services to more retail-friendly options, companies are also forming new partnerships in order to keep up with the ever-evolving trend. How are meal kit companies changing with the times, and what’s next for the segment?

Business moves and a shifting landscape

With meal kits becoming more mainstream and consumers increasingly looking for convenient in-home dining options, both retailers and meal kit companies are making changes to the way they do business in order to gain market share. Business deals including Kroger’s $200 million acquisition of Home Chef and True Food Innovations’ deal to buy Chef’d after it briefly shuttered due to lack of funding are rapidly changing the landscape within the industry.

While Chef’d will see a second life, its new owner has suspended e-commerce operations in order to focus on in-store offerings. The company’s brief closure highlights the belief that grocers could be better suited to offer meal kits than subscription service providers, David Bishop of retail consultancy Brick Meets Click recently told Progressive Grocer. It's easier for grocers to market and distribute such kits than another company that must build infrastructure and name recognition, Bishop said.

The steady move into grocery stores is something that Meagan Nelson, associate director of Nielsen's Fresh Practice, has been keeping a close eye on. “It creates a much different dynamic when you go in store than the pure subscription play,” she explains. While grocers often offer the same price per meal as their subscription-based counterparts, shoppers have the option of buying one meal at a time as opposed to being locked into multiple meals. Freshness, quality and variety are also becoming greater considerations for in-store kits.

Differentiating to find mass appeal

This shift in meal kit dynamics is coming at a time when American consumers are increasingly polarized, Nelson explains. With a disparity among those of high income versus low income, those living in the city versus the suburbs and even those who care about health claims, makers and retailers are being forced to find their niche and figure out how to create superior offerings for myriad consumer subsets.

A bevy of new options has been introduced on the meal kit front thanks to this polarization and subsequent product evolution, ranging from Sun Basket’s rollout of diabetes-friendly solutions to Yumble’s line of meal kits specifically for children. Retailer New Seasons Market has teamed with renowned chef Matt Lightner to offer its own line of kits that feature organic produce, antibiotic-free meats and locally sourced items.

Meal kit companies are also looking to gain greater appeal through the use of celebrity partnerships. Blue Apron this year partnered with model Chrissy Teigen to create six kits based upon recipes in her Cravings cookbook, while football player Tom Brady has teamed up with Purple Carrot to make his own line of vegan meals. Purple Carrot is said to earn nearly one-third of its sales through Brady’s line of meal kits.  

What does the future hold?

Changing menus, interesting ingredients, new partnerships and a greater shift into retail availability are all things Nelson believes will pave the way for the future of meal kits. While some argue that meal kits are on the decline, Nelson believes consumers still appreciate the fact that they offer a different experience. “It is the variety aspect,” she says of the continued interest.

Moving forward, both grocers and subscription meal kit companies will have several questions to ask themselves if they want to stay relevant in today’s shifting consumer landscape. For grocers, Nelson believes the main question will be, “How do you market something that’s going to appeal to the most people?” They should also ask themselves how to maintain variety, because if consumers are given items or recipes that are too familiar or similar with each meal, they’ll seek out the regular products instead of splurging for the meal kit, Nelson says.

While subscription-based companies must ask themselves the same questions, another wrinkle comes in the form of justifying the price for their meals. The convenience of home delivery will continue to win out for certain consumers, but the addition of higher-quality, organic, or vegan options could make a difference when it comes to the premium price tag per meal. This all could lead to a shift in pricing structure for online meals as some cheaper in-store options come into play, Nelson notes.

As far as different players getting into the game, Nelson sees new partnerships as a tool for meal kit makers in the future. “What we’ll see is potentially an evolution of how some of the products within kits become new marketing platforms for food companies,” she explains. Food companies that could provide components of meal kits are well positioned to create partnerships and get products featured. Not only is this an intriguing proposition for meal kit makers, but it also provides a way for food makers to get their products in front of new audiences.

Regardless of the landscape, meal kit makers will continue to experiment and find new ways to appeal to consumers. As Nelson explains, another important question makers should ask themselves is what their desired play is within the meal kit game. “There are so many different ways you can go, but you can’t be everything to everyone,” she says.
 

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