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Over the past few years, the plant-based industry experienced an exponential boom, with nearly a quarter of food products launched in 2019 labelled vegan.
A report by Mintel showed that the UK sales of meat-free products saw a remarkable growth of 40%, from £582 million in 2014 to an estimated £816 million in 2019; and sales are expected to be in excess of £1.1 billion by 2024.
But in recent months, supermarket names such as Heck, Oatly and Innocent have pulled some of their vegan alternative options after disappointing sales. Does this mean the plant-based boom is over, or does it provide an opportunity for independents?
What’s behind the fall in sales
According to Joe Hill, co-founder of premium vegan frozen pizza brand One Planet Pizza, the recent drop in sales can largely be attributed to a combination of two factors.
“First, many consumers are responding to a cost-of-living crisis by returning to familiar affordable staples across traditional meat and dairy in the hope of saving money. Second, with changing consumer demands, retailers are focusing on where they can offer value for money, often leaning towards budget own-label ranges.”
Indeed, NIQ’s data found that 73% of plant-diet shoppers were actively trying to make savings on their grocery bills, preferring to purchase plant-based products when they are on promotion (62%).
However, this does not mean the vegan boom is over. “Ultimately, the plant-based category is in a better place than 10 years ago, and the highs and lows are natural for the evolution of a more premium category like ours,” Jack Reade, EMEA APAC sales director at plant-based meat producer Future Farm, explained.
“What is really happening is that the sector is entering a new stage of maturity as growth slows down after many years of explosive growth and innovation. This is common in most sectors and is no reason to write off plant based as a fad,” Joe added.
What are consumers looking for in plant-based?
In 2023, shoppers are spoilt for choice with plant-based products and are no longer looking for the token vegan option.
According to Axel Katalan, founder of artisan vegan cheese producer Julienne Bruno, this means that being ‘plant-based’ is no longer a USP, and brands need to provide something more. “Our philosophy is to create genuinely original, delicious and versatile produce, and to reinvigorate the category with our gastronomic quality.
“As customers are becoming more price savvy in the cost-of-living crisis alongside the plant-based category reaching a mass tipping point, to stand out and survive, small independent vegan brands should focus on quality.”
This provides an opportunity for independent retailers to claim a more high-quality slice of the plant-based market by stocking brands that offer something truly unique.
“Consumers are now looking for exciting and innovative plant-based products that are convenient and easy to use,” Joe told Speciality Food. “Affordable alternatives to meat and dairy that focus on using natural ingredients like vegetables and pulses are likely to entice shoppers away from some of the more processed offerings containing long ingredients lists.”
Of course, like any fine food customer, taste is still the top priority. As Karry Meyrick, owner of Karry’s Deli in Barry, explained, “They want plant-based foods that taste as good as, or even better than, the animal-based versions.
“Consumers also want plant-based foods that have the same texture as the animal-based versions. This is especially important for meat alternatives, as consumers want them to have the same juicy, chewy texture as real meat.”
This is something Axel has found success with, as he told Speciality Food, “I believe a taste-first approach with original products is essential for driving repeat purchase with consumers and continued market growth rather than just focussing on imitating with alternatives.
“By meeting this demand, we have just won the World Dairy Alternative Innovation Award for the taste, uniqueness, and versatility of our Collection 01, featuring BURRELLA®, CREMATTA®, and SUPERSTRACCIA®.”
Why indies should stock plant-based in 2023
With plenty of opportunity for success in the vegan market, fine food retailers should continue to champion artisan and high-quality brands making a difference in the space.
As Axel explained, “Through stocking high-quality plant-based products, independent retailers can further differentiate themselves from major supermarkets and keep attracting customers back to their stores.”
Karry agreed, “The plant-based food market is still growing rapidly, plant-based products are in high demand, and independent retailers can differentiate themselves by offering a wide selection of these products. By stocking high-quality plant-based products, independent retailers can attract new customers, retain existing customers, and boost their bottom line.”
“Our produce is designed for foodies who love to create, appreciate fine quality and are engaged in food culture, which independent retailers often appeal to so they can cater to the needs of this market as well as providing consumers the opportunity to discover new and innovative products,” Axel added.
With the climate crisis not going anywhere, it is important that indies continue to stock products that benefit the environment. “Increasingly conscious consumers are still seeking more sustainable brands and products,” Joe explained. “Retailers take the initiative to deliver said offerings will be able to entice these shoppers who are often more loyal and vocal about where they shop and what they buy.”