Category advice: Free-from

Priya Khaira reveals what shoppers are looking for in the category, and how retailers can get their share of sales

In recent years, there’s been a growing demand for vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free foods among consumers. Approximately 14% of the UK’s population is now following a meat-free diet in 2023, as noted by Kathryn Hague, head of marketing at Hancocks. However, retailers often find it challenging to gauge the clear demand for these categories in their stores and determine the extent of their offerings.

Shisan Patel from Jasp DPS in Birmingham shares, “We used to have a small section in one of our freezers dedicated to meat-free frozen meals. I’ve noticed a bigger demand for vegetarian options from customers. Traditional brands now offer vegetarian and meat-free alternatives on the majority of meal items. We’ve expanded our freezer space to accommodate vegetarian and vegan foods.”

Despite more brands catering to the rise in demand for plant-based and gluten-free alternatives, it’s crucial for retailers to stay realistic about the range they stock and its resonance with their customer base. Sam Maguire, head of marketing at Rude Health, advises, “With smaller fixtures, independent convenience stores need to be discerning with their range. Offering the right mix of products is key. Addressing the widest possible market with the smallest range, focusing on top sellers across each category, will be key to winning shoppers rather than having a very broad range.”

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Customers shopping in this category are likely seeking cooking essentials or quick meal options, with a range of expectations. Maguire emphasizes, “Across all demographics, people are increasingly looking for high-quality ingredients that taste great. They are uncompromising on a short ingredients list and a product that will be delicious.” With the variety of plant-based and gluten-free alternatives available, customers tend to gravitate toward brands that deliver on taste and price.

Gill Riley, Consumer Director at Quorn Foods UK, notes, “As economic uncertainty continues to impact shopping habits, value for money is increasingly influencing shopper purchase decisions, alongside health and sustainability considerations. We know that budget-conscious shoppers focus more heavily on frozen foods as affordable meal solutions.”

Category insight

  • Veganism: Vegans abstain from consuming any food derived from animals, including dairy products, eggs, and honey. According to Whole Food Earth, merely 2% of the UK population identifies as vegan, with an additional 3% expressing an inclination to participate in the Veganuary campaign. Retailers can seize the opportunity in January to showcase vegan products for customers seeking plant-based alternatives in the new year.
  • Vegetarianism: A vegetarian diet excludes meat and seafood, though some vegetarians may still include eggs and dairy products. The UK boasts 3.4 million vegetarians, with higher concentrations in London, East Midlands, West Midlands, and the northeast.
  • Gluten-Free: Individuals adhering to a gluten-free diet avoid foods containing gluten, prevalent in wheat, rye, and barley. This dietary choice is commonly motivated by medical or health concerns, as well as personal preferences. In the UK, an estimated 8.5 million people follow a gluten-free lifestyle.

Top tips

  • Customer demographic: It is vital that retailers understand whether they have a strong demographic of customers for the category before expanding their range. This can also be dependent on the location of your store, and the spending habits of customers in your location.
  • Value- Products that provide customers with a sense of value for money are key to driving sales in this category. It is important to stock the right range that offers customers the best pricing.
  • Be realistic- It is important for retailers to cater to different dietary requirements and needs, which includes providing customers with meat- and gluten-free options. However, retailers need to be considerate about how large a range they can stock, and should prioritise providing alternative main dishes and lunchtime meal options.

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