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Fuelled by trends towards healthier eating, free-from alternatives have swept the UK in recent years. Gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan products are no longer solely niche items found in health food stores. Toby Hill speaks to two retailers to find out how they make it work in their areas
We’ve had a gluten-free area for about two years, but I’m about to change it: I’ll keep the products but take down the dedicated area, and just have shelf labels saying they’re gluten-free. Initially it was good to have a separate bay, just to highlight the fact that we do it. But now regulars know we’ve got it and I just don’t have enough shoppers to justify the prominent space. Instead, I make sure staff are trained to talk to customers about gluten-free and point them to the right products.
I’m considering some gluten-free products for my deli – but I won’t shout about the fact they’re gluten-free. If I do that, some of my fussier customers won’t buy it. Instead, I’ll put a little ‘GF’ sign next to the price: those who are looking for it will recognise it, those who aren’t won’t notice. If it’s a good product in its own right, the fact it’s gluten-free can actually put potential buyers off.
I’ve generally found that store cupboard essentials such as gluten-free flour don’t sell too well – people know they can get better prices in the supermarket, and will pick them up during their big shop. Instead, it’s snacking items that are most popular. Someone might have a friend coming round who they know only eats gluten-free products, so they’ll grab something to share with them.
I also stock gluten-free pasta, but rather than just offering specialist gluten-free, I stock edamame and mung bean pasta, sourced from Cotswold Fayre. I’d rather focus on a quality product that happens to be gluten-free rather than stocking specialist gluten-free.
On the vegan side, we sell vegan jelly babies, chocolates, marshmallows and gummy bears, all sourced from our specialist confectionery supplier House of Sarunds. We have a vegan family nearby with young kids and they love it.
Key products to make your store a free-from destination
Mrs Crimble’s Big Jam Coconut Rings Mrs Crimble’s offers baked treats perfect for customers looking for snacks to share with those who have intolerances.
Eat Real Hummus, Lentil and Quinoa Chips A savoury alternative snack to potato crisps, available in impulse and sharing sizes.
Urban Eat Gluten-Free BLT Combining bacon with lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise on gluten-free brown bread, this is perfect for customers seeking a gluten-free lunch option.
Vegan and vegetarian
Quorn Cottage Pie Quorn offer a range of vegan products, from ready meals such as cottage pies to soya chunks for cooking into a curry.
Great Northern Sandwich Co Royal Spice Royal Spice joins Simply the Pest-O; Goaty McGoat Cheese; Jala-Bean-O; Go Greek Lightning; and Beet it in this new range from Spar’s northern wholesaler James Hall.
Tanpopo Bamboo & Mushroom Ramen Also from James Hall, this vegan noodle pot is part of their new Tanpopo range, which draws on Asian flavours to create vegan meals.
Nakd Cocoa Orange Nakd’s range of cereal bars are dairy-, wheat- and gluten-free, tapping into the free-from snacks trend.
Alpro Almond Milk Milk is an impulse purchase, and with a strong consumer trend towards dairy-free milk products for both health and animal welfare reasons, stocking this is a no-brainer.
Urban Eat Pickle Me Up Sandwich One of Urban Eat’s Roots range of vegan sandwiches from Adelie Foods, this combines dairy-free cheddar-style cheese with pickle, tomato, red onion and salad leaves.
We introduced a free-from range about five months ago. A lot of our customers were asking for gluten-free and that prompted us to look at the options. Customers knew they could get products from the supermarket and would buy the basics from there. But some gluten-free products are everyday essentials, precisely the kind of products people want from a convenience store – bread or milk, for example – so it made sense for us to offer them.
In terms of choosing what to stock, it was all about talking to our customers. I began by trying out a couple of items that they suggested, to see how it went – it was successful, so now we’ve opened a full section.
We also cater to vegan customers. That’s quite easy as there are well-established brands like Linda McCartney. We’ve got a whole freezer dedicated to vegan and gluten-free lines. I think people appreciate not having to rummage through the whole freezer to find the products, potentially having to move slabs of frozen meat to get to the vegan products.
We get good margins on the free-from lines, almost 32% on much of it. Frozen products are obviously low-risk, but I was reluctant at first to stock chilled and ambient. But those initial worries quickly fell away and it’s fantastic how it’s grown. We’ve dedicated a whole metre bay to our free-from range and it definitely gets people’s attention.
Create a specific free-from area or aisle so that shoppers know where to find their favourite products, but also secondary site by placing free-from or vegan snacks at the food-to-go fixture or till to build on impulse purchasing.
Cross-category promotions are a popular one-stop shop option for people looking to buy into multiple categories.
Bookend the fixtures – ensure popular lines are at the ends of the aisle to drive shoppers down it.
Mallow Tree Fruit Bear Gummies Part of confectionery manufacturers House of Sarunds’ range of vegan sweets, these taste fantastic, making them popular with all members of the family.
Easy Bean Chickpea Crispbread Gluten-free crackers are great for people who have gluten-free friends or relatives visiting and want some special nibbles to offer them.
Bisto Gluten-Free Gravy Granules Customers appreciate that we stock products that they might suddenly need for a meal – and the long shelf-life means there’s little risk for us.
Linda McCartney’s Vegetarian Sausages These frozen sausages are popular with vegetarians, but they’re also a good product generally, so it’s not just our vegetarian customers that buy them.