17 January 2020, 10:30 AM
  • Anna Blewett looks at The When and The Where of this movement
Where is the vegan market at now?

The When
The caveat we always encounter when discussing the explosion in plant-based is a compelling one: growth has undoubtedly come from a small base. “The category’s not a huge threat today,” concedes Grenville Wall, consumer insight director at market analyst Kantar. “It looks set to become so but today it’s from a small base. What we’re seeing too is that the proportion of us who eat meat or fish over a week has remained static as well, particularly chicken and fish.” And yet, “There’s a massive amount of people who don’t identify as vegans who have an appetite to move away from meat,” says Peter Sharman, a one-time burger restaurateur who executed a perfect pivot to co-found fake meat brand THIS. “That’s a huge market to cater to. Looking on a longer timeline I think vegan will grow, but because that’s quite a prescriptive band I think what we’ll see more of is meat eaters reducing their meat intake. Particularly as high-quality meat substitutes come onto market and represent less and less of a compromise for them.”

Pete’s claims are backed up by Thurston Butchers in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, which in August last year became the first butcher known to stock vegan ‘meat’. “People are probably thinking it’s absurd for a butcher to sell vegan produce,” says owner Alistair Angus, “but I see it as an alternative. We actually get asked a lot by our customers for vegetarian or vegan alternatives so this provides a perfect answer.”

Other retailers keen to build sales in this category will this month be leveraging Veganuary, the annual campaign to encourage plant-based living that’s become something of a feeding frenzy for brands keen to promote their credentials to primed consumers. “Last year we didn’t see much of a Veganuary effect,” muses Grenville Wall. “It had surprisingly little impact in January on plant-based meals. But it certainly raises awareness and you hear anecdotally about a huge number of people trying the diet, even if rather a large proportion fail in a short period. It serves to highlight that the diet is possible, and shows people the possibilities of how they could be eating.”

The Where
Not buying all this talk of a plant-based food revolution? Just how high you’re raising your brows right now may depend on your business’s location, but interestingly for once this isn’t a North/South issue. “The biggest differential in eating habits in this country tends to be London vs rest of the country,” points out Grenville. “So rather than North/ South divide it’s very much an urban/rural thing.”

“There’s a truth that big trends, particularly in food and drink, start in cities,” agrees Theadora Alexander, co-founder of start-up community Young Foodies. “Not just London but also Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham… And then they filter out. That’s partly because the big trends around convenience top-up shopping, for example, and health and wellness, are city-based by their nature.”

Of course, location isn’t just relevant on a national level. In the geography of your shop, the position of your plant-based foods also tells a tale. “As a category plant-based isn’t like free-from always has been: just confined to one fixture in the aisles,” says market watcher Theadora. “We’re seeing it weaved throughout the shelves, with supermarkets in particular knowing it’s more of a switching choice for the everyday shopper, which is really encouraging.” So far from occupying a small ‘ghetto’ of products for those on a restrictive diet, plant-based are increasingly mixed in with their animal-based alternatives. “From a shop-fixtures perspective that makes plant-based rather disruptive,” says Grenville, “because it impacts on a huge proportion of the store rather than just one little corner.”

The exception to this rule comes for retailers finding it easier to treat plant-based as a stand-alone bolt-on, rather that a category that can be easily retro-fitted through the whole range. “We promote one metre fixtures to group plant-based challenger brands in one well signposted location,” says Michael of the novel products NPD that characterises plant-based foods. “Otherwise I think a lot of new-tomarkets starts-ups can get lost if they’re dotted around next to the big boys.”

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