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What makes a buyer sit up and take note when they discover a new product? Is it down to flavours, trends, innovation or a gut feeling? How can indie food and drink makers ensure their product is hitting all the right notes? We spoke to the experts to discover what qualities are inspiring buyers today.
1. Innovative takes on classic food and drink
“We like to see new concepts on old themes,” said John Shepherd, managing director of Partridges. “For example, recently, a very good liquorice allsort maker, a great new ketchup brand, a new pickle supplier, a start-up local microgreens grower, many new snack suppliers and of course a multitude of drink manufacturers.”
Jade Hoai, director of purchasing and operations at Whole Foods Market, agrees that innovations, no matter how big or small, make an impact. “Sometimes it’s something as simple as taking an existing product and tweaking it to really deliver a ‘WOW’.”
Brands can try to copy the Fever-Tree effect, John explains, “recreating a traditional product with flair and marketing”. Premium mixer brand Fever-Tree soared in popularity thanks to its unique take on a classic product. “For us, this creates some clear water and a point of difference between a speciality food shop and the larger supermarkets,” John says.
2. The latest health and nutrition trends
Consumers shop at Planet Organic to find healthy food and drink options, says buying director Al Overton. “We see the increased popularity of certain healthy eating habits and lifestyles, be it keto or vegan or flexitarian, and it makes sense we stock food which supports them,” Al tells Speciality Food.
“But we also try to drive interest in those healthy habits by finding the best foods associated with them: we know that new experiences and new discoveries drive our customers, so something original or innovative is often of interest. Sustainability – a brand or company’s ethics – is very important to us as well,” he says.
Al believes it’s important to discover brands that bring a new approach, or an entirely original product. “It represents a small adventure for consumers and brings with it a sense of discovery. Those are things Planet Organic seeks out because they’re important to our first-to-market reputation,” he explains. “Our product range is approximately made up of 30% new products annually, as we search for unique styles and brands, the next kombucha or the next tempeh, for example.”
3. New vegan food and drink
“The plant-based juggernaut is showing no signs of slowing, so retailers are looking for plant-based versions of everything from desserts to drinks and snacking products to cereals,” says Jason Gibb of Bread & Jam. “They have an extra keen eye out for cheese and other dairy alternatives like butter, and it’s in the start-up space where the innovation is really happening.”
By the end of the decade, analysts at Barclays expect the value of the global vegan food and drink market to grow more than 1,000% to reach £100bn. This rapid rate of growth means understanding trends in the plant-based sector is incredibly important for both retailers and producers. On 31st March, Bread & Jam will host the UK’s biggest Plant-Based Summit. The digital event will feature brands which Jason calls “Vegan 2.0, where products are moving away from highly processed, fake meats to products with ingredient lists that we can recognise”, such as Bold Bean Co and Gaia Pulses.
Planet Organic’s Al agrees that innovation is transforming the plant-based sector and moving it in line with the healthy food trend. “The innovations in our vegan butcher range are remarkable, delicious and healthy and driving demand. The same with vegan cheeses, many of which are unrecognisable from just a few years ago,” he says.
“The start-up world is seeing some really exciting innovation around vegan chocolate,” Jason adds. “Brands like the super indulgent Mummy Meagz bars with added honeycomb, marshmallows and gluten-free biscuits, or the super creamy Fellow Creatures. Going a step further are Caroboo who have modernised carob for the vegan audience and created an incredibly chocolatey bar with no chocolate,” he explains.
The key to creating a superior vegan product is blending nutrition and indulgence. “Buyers have also told me that their customers want to eat healthier plant-based products, but at the same time treat themselves to indulgent, convenient foods. And with the double-whammy of Covid and Brexit which will have a big impact on their pockets, consumers are looking for affordable ways to treat themselves. So the Holy Trinity is healthy, indulgent and kind on the wallet,” Jason says.
4. Local and sustainable
“We love local,” says Whole Foods’ Jade. “Locally produced products resonate with our customers. It’s about supporting small and usually independent producers who have a unique offering.”
Within this space, the natural and organic retailer zeros in on brands that prioritise sustainability and eco-friendly qualities. “Today’s consumers really want to know where a product comes from, how it is produced, and whether it can be recycled or gives back to local communities,” Jade says. “There’s more activity around being certified plastic negative, and brands are going for unpackaged or minimal packaged products.”
Al agrees that sustainability is an important factor for brands to consider if they want to be stocked in Planet Organic. “Happily, we’re seeing sustainability, from farming to packaging and shipping, being prioritised. A product’s sustainability plays a big part in our decision making process. And innovation is there, too, and that’s helping us,” Al says.
Adrian Boswell, food buyer at Selfridges says ethics and exclusivity are among the most important factors: “When searching for new brands, we’re primarily looking for quality and that their approach to sustainability and ethical trading are in line with our Project Earth commitments. We love brands that are new to the market; exclusivity is very important to give us a point of difference from our competitors. We’re passionate about working with small and independent brands, providing them with a launch pad and supporting them on their journey.”
While what’s on the inside matters – Jade notes that Whole Food looks for “purpose-driven” brands, and they must meet the shop’s rigorous quality standards, which prohibit more than 100 preservatives, flavours, colours, sweeteners and other ingredients – looks count, too. “It has to be attractive to the customer with great branding.”
5. A distinct USP
Over the years, the fine food sector has become a market saturated with new products, Partridges’ John tells Speciality Food, making it increasingly difficult to select the right ones for the shop. So what makes him choose one over the other? “The question always is the USP. Packaging, taste, marketing, ingredients, provenance,” John says. “Customers always like a product with a story, but the story must be told.”
For Jade, great taste is the first hurdle for a new brand to jump. “Our buyers taste and evaluate each product we sell, because we want to curate on behalf of our customers,” she explains. “Then it comes down to having a clear vision and purpose for your brand. Know your customer because then you ensure that you’re designing a brand with a fit for their demand. We’ve already established that it tastes great. So, am I offering them something that is unique?”
The alchemy of choosing the right product at the right time involves some luck on behalf of the retailer as well. “Many years ago,” John says, “we were the first shop to sell Ben & Jerry’s in the UK. Mr Ben and Mr Jerry as a thank you launched a new brand with us called ‘Cool Britannia’. It was basically a lucky break. On the other hand, we have not taken on other brands that have gone on to become a great success elsewhere.” But when in doubt, a keen supplier can make the difference. “Some products stand out and some do not, but perseverance from a supplier counts for a lot.”
Keeping these five factors in mind will help both retailers and producers ensure that consumers can discover the finest food and drink on the market.
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