Free-from is no longer a trend just for the celebrity-obsessed and urban hipsters. Priyanka Jethwa explores what is driving this movement and how you can benefit

Having a free-from range isn’t just ‘fashionable’ anymore, it’s a necessary and mainstream trend that is here to stay, and one that has developed into a lifestyle choice for many. Therefore, retailers should be prepared to provide a wide range that meets a number of needs – such as plant-based and dairy-free products – or risk of losing loyal shoppers and having them go to competitors. 

Within free-from food, the industry has seen a massive rise in more 16-30-year-olds opting to follow lactose-free diets, according to Isla Owen, senior marketing manager
at Adelie Foods. “22% of millennials are now opting for gluten-free products when shopping, indicating a growing dairy-free movement among this age group.” 

On the next page, we have broken down the key trends within free-from and investigated the reasons behind them, and what key suppliers in the free-from category are doing to help retailers.

The key trends in free-from

Loyal shoppers 

Free-from shoppers are big-spending consumers who are likely to return to a store that offers a wide selection of premium free-from products. 

gluten-free-fridge.pngThis is according to Rebecca Vercoe, Mrs Crimble’s brand controller at Wessanen UK, who says: “A growing number of free-from consumers are shopping the fixture four to five times per week, often using it as a convenience destination for top-up, which creates a huge opportunity for additional basket spend.” 

Offering sweet free-from treats is a key way to keep loyal customers interested, and Christopher Pritchard, marketing executive at Moo Free Chocolates, says: “We have noticed that rice milk is a favourite milk alternative for chocolate among shoppers.” The brand’s Bunnycomb Bar, for example, therefore uses rice milk as an alternative, and Mrs Crimble’s has also recently expanded its free-from range to include a Big Choc Macaroon Bar and a Mini Macaroon Sharing Tub.

More than just an intolerance 

Pursuing a free-from diet has become more than just about having an intolerance or an allergy, but has developed as a lifestyle choice. 

Isla Owen, senior marketing manager at Adelie Foods, says with younger shoppers, dairy-free is a key area to invest in. “19% of 16-30-year-olds have bought or eaten dairy substitutes in the past six months, with 16% choosing lactose-free products.” 

Rebecca Vercoe, at Mrs Crimble’s, says for retailers to make it easier for younger shoppers to find free-from foods, it helps to group branded food and drink together to help products stand out on the shelf. “For single-serve packs, we recommend displaying them at the front of the store among other food to go items. This helps customers who are in a rush find convenient pack-sizes quickly,” she adds. 

Plant-based is growing

Alpro.png To maximise sales in free-from, having high visibility of foods and drinks that are marketed as ‘plant-based’ is important. 

Julie Stevens, category controller at Alpro UK & Ireland, says: “Retailers’ sales of plant-based products are growing at 22% year on year, and plant-based shoppers typically have a 40% higher basket spend compared to other shoppers.” So, to build a successful and attractive plant-based range, retailers should offer options for all meal types, including breakfast, snacks and ‘meal for tonight’. 

Vicky Upton, head of marketing at Alpro UK & Ireland, says Alpro plans to add an Almond Salted Caramel variety to its plant-based ice cream portfolio this year, to tap into this trend. Having a selection of plant-based drinks is also as important, and ambient ranges such as Alpro’s Soya Unsweetened and Almond Original can help increase sales. 


We place free-from alongside other foods, rather than a dedicated fixture


Around the store, or a dedicated display?

We spoke to two retailers to find out whether you should have a free-from area or not


Eddie Poole

Poole’s Supervalu, Moira  

“We find free-from items grouped together work best”

“We have five bays dedicated to free-from foods, which ranges from breads to soups, by local and big suppliers. We find it sells more when all free-from items are grouped together, as opposed to being spread across the store. It also makes the free-from category easier to shop – when shoppers see the whole range together, they are encouraged to buy more. Bread is the most popular purchase, alongside soups, and we source from local bakeries if we can. 

“Over the past year, sales have increased by 100%, but I do think it is more down to gluten-free being a ‘fashionable’ trend, rather than because of a genuine intolerance. When people buy gluten-free once, it becomes a repeat purchase.”

Mital Morar

Ancoats General Store, Manchester 

“We place free-from alongside other foods, rather than a dedicated fixture” 

“We have a wide range of free-from foods, so we tend to place them alongside normal variants, rather than having a dedicated fixture. For example, the free-form milks are ambient, so they work well placed next to cereals on-shelf to help encourage cross-selling. 

“Free-from is definitely a developing category, and in the past year, our range has tripled as more people follow gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian diets. Therefore, it’s important we cater and roll with these changes. We offer brands such as Oatly and Alpro, and have recently added Minor Figures to the range, all of which are doing well and are popular with shoppers.” l