(last updated July 2019)
What has been happening in the butchers sector
The number of specialist butchers has been in long term decline for a number of years, largely due to the increasing influence of the large supermarket chains. As well as offering a full range of pre-packed cuts of meat, almost all of the large supermarkets also have butchery counters that compete directly with High Street butchers. The convenience of including meat in the weekly 'shop' has resulted in a significant shift in the way that consumers make their purchases - in the early 1980s, only around 20% of meat was bought from supermarkets but by the 2010s this had increased to about 80%. The 2010s have seen many of the supermarket chains roll out UK-wide networks of High Street convenience stores which typically offer a limited range of fresh meat and these have put further pressure on the independent sector. The recent economic downturn saw many consumers turn to discounters such as Aldi and Lidl and their share of the retail meat market has increased in the last few years as a result. These factors have inevitably had a negative impact on independent butchers and their numbers have dwindled as a result of this drop in demand. In the 1980s there were over 20,000 independents but by 2016 there were only 5,240 still in existence with less than 10% of the market.
While there is still room in the market for the independent, many surviving businesses have had to innovate and diversify in order to differentiate themselves from the competition.
Meat consumption patterns were affected by the economic downturn between 2008 and 2013, a period that also saw very high prices of beef and lamb. As a result, many consumers traded down to cheaper meats, in particular chicken. The recovery in the economy from 2013 to 2015 meant that consumers had more disposable income but the recovery stalled in 2016 and the situation worsened due to the uncertainty following the Brexit vote in June and the subsequent negotiations for leaving the EU. Economic growth in 2017 was almost flat and the predictions for 2018 and 2019 show little, if any, improvement.
Various food scandals, including the horse meat scandal and the discovery that over 70% of chickens tested positive for the presence of campylobacter, put pressure on retailers and others in the supply chain to take steps to reduce the number of affected chickens, in particular those with the highest level of contamination. Local independent butchers who can demonstrate the provenance of all of their meat products may have been in a position to benefit, particularly those selling meat from local farms and other locally sourced products. Less helpful, however, was the research which demonstrated a link between cancer and eating red meat (including pork) and processed meats - that is, meat products that are cured, salted, smoked, or otherwise preserved in some way (so things like bacon, sausages, hot dogs, ham, salami, and pepperoni) but not fresh burgers or mince.
Sales of fresh meat and poultry continue to fall, year on year, with pork sales particularly badly affected. Any growth in the value of sales has been largely due to increased prices. Sales of bacon and of sausages also continue to fall. People's busy lives have meant that they are looking for meals that can be prepared quickly and easily, including easy-to-cook, prepared meats. To improve sales. butchers have found that different ways of cutting meat have been successful, for example cutting more muscle into steaks to reflect the decline in the popularity of traditional roasting joints, and selling mini joints. Different steak ranges, like flat iron steak, tender top, ranch and bistro steak, have also proved popular with customers. Other changes to make meat (particularly high value red meat) more attractive to customers include cutting steaks more thinly (average 150g instead of 250g), new cuts such as flank steaks and different-size packs.
The number of vegetarians in the UK has doubled over the last 25 years and research showed that 10% of shoppers had bought a meat-free ready meal in January 2018. Butchers who make their own sausages and pies are experimenting with meat free versions and sales of these have been growing. As consumers are generally cutting back on meat consumption for health reasons, you could consider making some 'flexitarian' products (products which include some meat but up to 35% fruit, vegetable or pulses). Some butchers have started to provide a wider range of products for their customers, for example by introducing a delicatessen counter and selling speciality local produce. Keep in mind the growing popularity of gluten-free products.
Recent research by IGD, the food and grocery research and training charity, found that customers want to spend less time in the kitchen and are looking for convenience food that does not require long preparation time. They want cuts of meat that are quick to cook and affordable, particularly with the pressure on household budgets.
Butchers no longer need a licence to deal in game. Venison dealers in Scotland still need a venison licence but generally this will only apply to wholesalers. Retailers who buy venison only from a licensed dealer don't need to have a licence themselves.
Keeping up to date with developments
Joining a trade association is an excellent way of staying in touch with developments in your industry. National Craft Butchers represents the interests of butchers in the UK and produces the monthly Craft Butcher magazine. The Scottish Federation of Meat Traders Association (SFMTA) represents the industry north of the border. Visit their websites for more information.
The industry bodies AHDB Beef and Lamb and AHDB Pork represent the beef and lamb, and pig industries respectively. The AHDB's 'Meat Trade' and 'Pork for butchers' websites include a number of practical tools to assist in the day-to-day running of a butcher's shop, as well as guidance for those starting out in the trade.
Meat Trades Journal (MTJ) is a trade magazine for people working in the whole of the meat industry and deals with all aspects of the trade, including production, manufacture, wholesale and retail sale. Further information is available from the 'meatinfo' website.
You will be able to get a lot of useful information at trade shows and exhibition for the butchery and catering sector. You will be able to speak to machinery manufacturers and find out which types would suit your business and what sort of prices they would be. The 'pork for butchers' and Exhibitions UK websites include details of trade shows that may be of interest to you.