Supply And Demand: Does More Visibility Of Veg Options Increase Sales?
One line of conventional wisdom in the animal advocacy movement is that the more veg options are available, the more people are encouraged to buy them. The goal of this study was to determine whether an increase in the availability of vegetarian meals actually correlated with an increase in purchases. To do this, researchers observed and then experimented with dining halls at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.
Prior studies have determined that mere education about the issues is a weak predictor of behavioral change, and while taxing meat would have a significant effect, it’s a politically unpopular solution. Relatively little attention has been paid to what the researchers call “choice architecture:” the framework in which consumer choices are made. Increasing availability of vegetarian food may result in a decrease in meat consumption without relying on changes in consumer values or punitive taxes.
The first part of the study was purely observatory; the researchers did not alter anything in the dining halls. They looked at two dining halls, A and B, over the course of spring, summer, and autumn terms. 86,932 meals were observed across this period of time, excluding sandwiches and salads. This data was sorted into meatless meals and those which included meat. They then looked at the number of meatless meals that were available at the dining halls at each mealtime in order to determine any effect that availability had on consumer choice.
The researchers found that increasing vegetarian meal availability from 25% to 50% resulted in a 62% increase in sales in dining hall A, and by 79% in dining hall B. When 50% of meals were vegetarian, 40% of diners in A and 33% in hall B chose to forgo meat. The researchers also looked at individual-level data to determine who was driving this increase, using university payment card data to look at their purchase history. They found that every quartile of consumers, from most to least vegetarian, bought more vegetarian meals when availability was increased. Furthermore, total sales seemed to be relatively unaffected by changes in vegetarian meal availability – A’s sales remained level, while B’s dropped slightly.
The researchers then conducted an experiment on a third dining hall, C, during the autumn term of 2017. 44 lunchtimes were observed, with vegetarian meal availability ranging from 16% to 50%. They found that doubling vegetarian meal availability from 25% to 50% did result in a 41% increase in vegetarian meal sales, but that meal choice was also affected by price differentials, time of the week, and week of the term. Like the observational study, total sales were not affected, and diners in the “least-vegetarian” quartile had a higher response than others. It is also important to note that there was no “rebound effect.” That is, people did not adjust their behavior at later mealtimes, regardless of meal choice. They did not consume more meat later, nor did they consume less.
This study shows that simply offering more vegetarian meals can increase vegetarian meal consumption and decrease meat consumption. It’s much more feasible to gradually reduce meat consumption in otherwise-omnivorous people than to convert a massive portion of the population to veganism overnight. Making a greater portion of meals meat-free in public cafeterias, dining halls, and canteens may be an effective tool for reducing meat consumption through consumer choice.