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Beyond Burger stacked patties
Photo credit: Beyond Meat

Alibaba tie-up brings Beyond Meat to Chinese shoppers

July 2, 2020

Chinese shoppers will be able to buy Beyond Meat products off the shelf for the first time thanks to a tie-up between the US plant-based protein maker and local tech giant Alibaba Group.

It’s the latest partnership that NASDAQ-listed Beyond Meat has struck in China, following earlier alliances with Starbucks and Yum China, which operates the KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell fast-food brands in the country. It also agreed a deal with China-focused food importer and distributor Sinodis last month.

Beyond Meat’s plant-based burger patties will be sold by Freshippo, Alibaba’s ‘new retail’ supermarket chain. The Beyond Burger will initially be available in 50 Freshippo stores in Shanghai, before being rolled out across other locations countrywide starting with Beijing and Hangzhou in September.

Also known as Hema, the tech-driven supermarket offers its customers an online-to-offline experience. Shoppers can browse products both on the Freshippo app, and by visiting one of its outlets. They can use their smartphone to scan product QR codes for traceability or nutritional information, pay for their purchases at unmanned checkouts using digital wallets, and opt for express home delivery.

Freshippo also tries to offer customers premium services in its physical stores, such as dining-in options where shoppers can have their freshly bought seafood prepared for them to eat in-store – with robot waiters on hand to serve and bus dishes.

Alibaba launched Freshippo in 2015 to target China’s urban, Millennial middle classes. As evidenced by its existing partnerships in the country with Starbucks and Yum China, that’s the same demographic that Beyond Meat wants to tap into for its initial forays into the Chinese market.

Zhao Jiayu, senior director and head of merchandising at Freshippo, said in a statement that the two companies “share a vision of bringing innovative shopping experiences and products” to their customer bases.

“Freshippo’s ‘new retail’ technology will enable plant-based meat to grow in China by meeting the modern Chinese consumer’s expectations whether they are shopping online or offline.”

Ethan Brown, Beyond Meat’s founder and CEO, said that the retail segment will be “a critical part” of the company’s rollout in China. “We’re pleased to mark this early milestone within a few months of our market entry,” he added.

China is the world’s largest consumer of meat, putting away an estimated $170 billion of the stuff each year according to market research firm Euromonitor. But animal-free meat substitutes are predicted to rapidly gain ground in the country, with Euromonitor estimating that China’s ‘free from meat’ market will hit $12 billion in value by 2023, up from $10 billion in 2018.

Management consultancy McKinsey found that the Covid-19 crisis may have had an accelerant effect. Around 70% of respondents to its recent China consumer survey said they’d be willing to spend more time and money to buy safe and eco-friendly products, and 75% said they want a healthier diet following the pandemic – all claims often made by alt-protein advocates in favor of the products.

However, getting Chinese consumers on side may not be so simple. Recent research from Food Industry Asia and AI Palette [disclosure: AI Palette is an investee of AgFunder, which is AFNs parent company] found that plant-based proteins “didn’t benefit” from increased consumer interest in China amid Covid-19.

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