Chicken consumption data presented by yours truly at the 2013 Chicken Marketing Seminar indicates something unusual is going on with America's most-consumed meat protein, chicken.

Data from a survey of 1,000 consumers across the United States reveal they are purchasing white meat chicken cuts at a dramatically higher rate than a year ago, while at the same time purchasing rotisserie chicken, wings and dark meat chicken less often.

Let's be clear, marketers expect to see ups and downs in any type of consumption data, but what the latest National Chicken Council survey shows is a net 19 percent rise in the number of consumers who say they are purchasing white meat chicken cuts more often than a year ago.

This huge increase in chicken white meat purchasing is incredible enough by itself, but the data also shows a net increase in the number of consumers purchasing less chicken in all five of the other chicken categories tracked in the survey.

The up and downs in six categories of chicken

  • White meat chicken (boneless/skinless breast meat, bone-in/skin-on breasts, breast halves, wings, similar parts or portions) – Up 19 percent
  • Rotisserie chicken from a supermarket, supercenter, club store or similar grocery store – Down 5 percent
  • Bone-in/skin-on chicken wings – Down 4 percent
  • Dark meat chicken (legs, thighs, leg quarters, drumsticks, boneless/skinless thigh meat, similar parts or portions) – Down 5 percent
  • Boneless chicken wings – Down 3 percent
  • Rotisserie chicken from a restaurant, fast food, carry-out, workplace cafeteria, or similar foodservice outlet type eating place – Down 9 percent

Product substitution and chicken shopping

The data left some conference participants scratching their heads at first hearing. Why such a huge increase in white meat chicken cuts at the same time the other five chicken categories went south?

Consumers in the survey weren't asked about the reasons for their purchasing behavior, but there's an explanation which not only fits the data but is behavior observable in the marketplace. Economists call it substitution of goods, but a seminar attendee provided a first-hand description in a conversation following the data’s presentation.

“At the Kroger store where I shop there has been a tremendous increase in the number of sale promotions of boneless/skinless chicken breasts and other white meat cuts,” said Gwen Venable, U.S. Poultry & Egg Association’s vice president of communications. “The data in the survey reflects the fact that shoppers are switching their poultry and meat purchases to what’s on sale – white meat chicken cuts like boneless chicken breasts.”

Chicken’s role as loss-leader-in-chief

Undoubtedly, chicken’s role as the loss-leader-in-chief at the supermarket is unchallenged for now as beef prices continue at historic highs. This raises questions, because selling more pounds of chicken isn’t the singular objective. At what point does chicken’s role as the loss-leader at the supermarket lead to chicken fatigue? What are the product-mix implications for poultry companies? There are challenges to be addressed and opportunities to be had in answering these questions. The survey of chicken purchasing was sponsored by the National Chicken Council with funding by WATT PoultryUSA.