26 October 2023, 07:00 AM
  • Products catering to special diets can prove costly, but, say retailers, the rise in consumers reaching for free from can make them a valuable addition to shelves
Should independent retailers be investing in free from?

Over the last few years, the free from movement has expanded to include all kinds of specialist products, but this can sometimes present a challenge to indie fine food retailers. Small independent delis and farm shops can’t stock everything, but at the same time they want to make sure everyone is included in their shopping experience. Bruno Zoccola, owner of Valentina Delis, has seen a rise in demand for free from, and knows how important it is to offer options while keeping it core.

“We feel that it is important to offer a large, but tailored, choice of options for consumers. Luckily, much of our offering is, by nature, allergen free, but over the past few years we have really noticed a wider demand for accommodating dietary needs. We made a conscious decision that we wanted to ensure everyone is able to shop here, regardless of their dietary requirements or preferences. We get a lot of families in, and often different members of the family have different needs. We would rather offer a variety of options than risk losing out on the entire family’s custom.”

Creating a free from family

For Bruno, it’s that family element that drives the determination to cover all dietary requirements. He is selling from one family to another.

“At our family-run delicatessen we mostly stock Italian produce, with some options from other Mediterranean countries. Much of what we stock is naturally allergen free – think passata, pesto, and antipasti. However, obviously staples such as pasta are a key part of an Italian diet too, and we do stock specialist gluten-free and vegan pastas. Interestingly, we have found that these ranges are hugely popular, and often people without a specific dietary need buy our free from ranges for the taste or for the positive health connotations.”

Offering these products also creates a kind of family that includes the retailer and the customers. It builds loyalty, as Lizzie Dowling-Nash, marketing and events assistant at Flourish, knows.

“We offer gluten-free, vegan and dairy-free products. We have a large number of customers that return because we stock these free-from options, and many people have purchased and tried free from products because it is an option. We have had customers ask if we do certain items in a free from version which has sparked the idea to look into what other things we could supply.”

Costs versus inclusivity

The idea that some customers who don’t follow a free from diet buy products simply because they like them or because they want to be healthier, is an interesting one. It’s a case of opening up choices. But it isn’t always that easy.

“Unfortunately, as we choose local and sustainably produced products, we have less options ourselves to choose free from stockists,” says Lizzie. “Luckily there are local businesses we can still source from that have these options, along with our talented team who can accommodate them. Having this choice makes the customer feel more included.

“Like many places we started without many free from products, however from listening and talking with our audience we discovered there was a need for these options. Not forgetting those who have allergies and rely on them. We began to grow this range of free from to having snacks, cakes, and decaf teas. Where there are simple changes that can be made to be more inclusive, we aim to try them.”

How difficult or easy adapting is for a fine food retailer will depend on their starting point. For Bruno, his Italian heritage plays into this, and he views free from as a part of all areas of food.

“The concept of free from is not new to us – the Mediterranean diet has been around for tens of thousands of years and is focused on healthy fruits and vegetables, oils, and proteins. It feels normal to make sure our customers can find what they need in our shops.”

But there must be a cost issue to look at here. Stocking specialist items that appeal to only a small section of customers ties up stock. For Bruno, it’s less about seeing stock stuck on the shelves and more about making sure free from customers aren’t paying more than they should.

“There is no negative financial implication for us with our free from ranges especially as the products we stock tend to have relatively long shelf lives which makes quick turnover less of an issue. However, where retailers like us have to be careful is ensuring the free from ranges are not prohibitively priced, as often they are more expensive than their counterparts.”

Does it make financial sense to stock such a wide range of products?
Is it cost effective?

“For us, it does, yes,” says Bruno. “It ensures we aren’t alienating any of our shoppers and appealing to a wider customer base, whilst staying true to our Mediterranean roots.”

Lizzie agrees, but also sees the issue in a more ‘big picture’ way.

“I believe we are very lucky to be a business that puts people and the planet first. So if you ask, ‘does it make sense to stock free from products when only a small number of our customers choose this?’ we would say yes, as what we make goes right back into Flourish and helping the planet and people where we can.”

Is free from here to stay?

There will always be those indie businesses that are ahead of the curve, but the question with any wave is will it persist? Bruno believes free from has always been around and always will be, it simply has better publicity now than ever before. It’s perhaps this publicity that’s driving more consumers to take up a free from diet.

“There is a real demand. It feels like it’s possibly beginning to plateau after a huge rise in free from demand two or three years ago driven by an increased awareness of intolerances and allergens, along with a great deal of media exposure.”

It isn’t always a good idea to follow fashion, but in the end it’s the customers who drive demand.

“We are always aware of what our customers are looking for and the changes in habits, but we need to make sure that the produce we offer is always up to Valentina quality standards,” says Bruno. “We have been in business for over 30 years and know what tastes good, and so we won’t stock anything that is ‘trendy’ but not good enough for our customers, or that might risk us losing new customers. For example, it has taken us a long time to find vegan meat alternatives, but we are thrilled with our selection now, and our vegan burrata is so delicious and creamy you couldn’t tell the difference from a traditional one.”

We’re all in this together

Viewing free from products as a part of the whole, rather than something special and separate could be the key. For Bruno, this is something he carries forward into how he presents the products and where they can be found in store.

“Our ambient products are grouped together by type (for example, pastas together, jarred vegetables together etc) and our free from options are found within the sections. We find this makes it easier for customers with dietary needs to find what they’re looking for, as well as encouraging other customers to try different options. We have also found that this way also generates more conversation between shoppers and staff, ensuring we can share our knowledge and expertise.”

Lizzie agrees, and when it comes to marketing and promoting these products there’s no line to be drawn.

“We promote these free from products the same as we would any other product, however the fact they are sustainable, local, and good for people does help.”

So, maybe it’s not about cost or inclusivity, but more about choice and variety.

“I believe it definitely limits your customer base if you aren’t able to cater for different dietary needs,” says Bruno “For example, at Christmas we stock a huge variety of panettone (including gluten-free, vegan, and alcohol-free versions) to ensure no one has to miss out. People who shop in independent retailers are often very loyal, so if they know we’re able to offer what they need, they’ll come back time and again.”

But perhaps even more than that, it’s about creating an atmosphere of family, a family where no one has to go without.

“It’s hugely important to us,” says Bruno. “We don’t want to leave anyone out – by nature of the Valentina business, we’re family-owned which means everyone’s welcome. Italian family gatherings are all about trying to accommodate as many people as possible, and I think we want to run our business like that too. We don’t take any customers for granted and want to make their shopping experiences as enjoyable and accessible as possible.”