- While plant-based milk's retail prices can be twice that of dairy milk, the premium is justifiable because of its more expensive blending and bottling procedures and packaging materials, a study from Mintec found.
- Analysts found that dairy milk is actually priced too low. When estimating the cost components of a gallon of milk, the greatest share goes to the raw material, according to Mintec. Dairy milk has almost no associated R&D or marketing costs. Meanwhile, average profits are several times lower, both for the producers and retailers.
- Things have been bleak for the U.S. dairy industry in recent years. In late 2019 and early 2020, two of the nation's largest milk companies — Dean Foods and Borden — filed for bankruptcy. Both companies ran into trouble as traditional milk consumption fell, consumers turned to plant-based alternatives and grocery retailers invested in their own milk production facilities, which enabled them to sell milk at very low prices and subsidize the operations through higher profits in other sections of the store.
The big takeaways from this report are unsurprising: Plant-based milk is more expensive because of processes, packaging and the need for constant innovation and marketing in the segment. Dairy milk is priced way too low with little financial wiggle room to allow for marketing, R&D and innovation.
Putting these findings together in a single report, however, drives home the contrast. Plant-based milk has a pricing model that supports future growth, both for producers and retailers. While the cost of making plant-based milk is likely to come down as the segment matures and scales up, Mintec said retailers will likely try to maintain prices at their current level to maintain the bigger profit margin, especially compared to dairy milk.
In fact, the plant-based industry is achieving its aims to grow, improve and market itself effectively. In 2019, according to statistics from the Plant Based Foods Association, plant-based alternatives made up 14% of the entire milk market. It had grown at a 5% clip in the year, compared to dairy milk's essentially flat growth. Analysts have yet to tally 2020's sales totals for plant-based milk, but the rate of growth is likely to be steeper. Plant-based milk has seen huge sales increases during the pandemic, especially in the first months of the health crisis.
Oat milk especially has seen rapid growth, with sales 212% higher in the first nine months of 2020 than 2019, according to Nielsen. Oatly, the Swedish company that invented and popularized oat milk, completely shook up the plant-based milk market with its environmentally friendly and high-performing beverages. It's also recently been the talk of serious financial speculators after Bloomberg reported it was considering an IPO this spring valued around $10 billion.
In dairy milk's column: Lots of problems. The drop in foodservice due to the pandemic in the first half of 2020 depressed dairy demand to the point that some producers had to dump milk. Demand has since picked up, according to a December report from Rabobank, and analysts are optimistic about growth on the horizon, but it will take time to materialize.
Meanwhile, the dairy milk industry seems committed to following a financial theory that has not been true in years: Everyone drinks milk, therefore the industry will always be profitable.
It's obvious that the conventional dairy industry needs to modernize its strategies and pricing, as well as market the positive aspects of its products. For example, Mintec determined that dairy milk has a superior nutritional value compared to several plant-based alternatives. The only plant-based milk that came anywhere close is oat milk, which still has far less protein. But the whole nutritional package of dairy milk isn't what consumers are talking about, especially since many think that a product labeled "plant-based" is better for them.
The dairy milk industry could also find success with new variations that intrigue and excite customers — a strategy that has worked in the past. The New Zealand-based A2 Milk Company, which produces a variety of milk without a protein that irritates some consumers, saw its U.S. growth nearly double in its last fiscal year. And Fairlife, a Coca-Cola-owned premium milk brand, had $500 million worth of retail sales in 2019, and was lauded for strong performance in the company's most recent financial report.