Reflecting our busier lives, food to go is a burgeoning business, now worth £21.5bn, but how should wholesalers and retailers respond to intensifying competition? One lesson is clear, suggests Richard Cooper, Senior Brand Manager at Dr Oetker Professional (UK). Wholesalers and retailers must differentiate their offering to stand out from the competition. “Shoppers will pay more and engage more with an operator if their experience is enhanced somehow. Be it a quirky brand personality or in-store experience from customer service to speed of payment, shoppers will return if they feel they get more than just the product itself. Bespoke meals are also a fantastic way for retailers to attract footfall, and build a reputation for quality food to go, encouraging upsell with drinks and sides at all times of the day,” he says.

Hot food to go is the area most shoppers want to see range expansion; and there are several benefits to wholesalers and retailers who answer this demand. The smell and theatre in-store around the hot food offering often leads to shoppers buying on impulse as well as upweighting baskets. It also unlocks higher footfall as well as new daypark missions, including evening meals. In fact, food to go has a role to play whenever shoppers are hungry and thirsty. This goes beyond lunchtimes; 61% of shoppers surveyed by IGD have completed a food to go mission for an evening meal, just 10% behind lunchtime missions. Evidence also shows that a third of food to go consumer visits are motivated by speed, and so offering a time-saving quality food innovation can lead to increased sales.

Bakery outlets are already a popular option for food to go with 8 out of 10 bakery purchases consumed on the move but they could still do with sharpening their focus, says Peter Linden, insight manager for Food Service UK, the NPD Group. This involves putting on good coffee, offering new food choices such as pizza, salads, pasta, hot sandwiches, croissants, pastries and much more, and meeting the demand for click and collect on delivery. Demand for artisan breads and traditional global bakery items show the strong re-emergence of specialty breads, with popular choices including rye breads, sourdoughs india paratha and kulcha and Turkish flatspreads.

In the retail lunch market, which divides into two sectors, lunch box and food to go, both sectors offer opportunities for wholesalers and retailers who can aim to cater for adults and children. This is an important market for convenience stores but wholesalers need to consider the buying patterns of consumers catering for their retail customers, says Matthew Grenter, sales manager of Brioche Pasquier. Lunchbox items are not the same as food to go, which involves forethought on the preparation in advance of the event, involving issues like health and special diets and value for money.

Consumers looking for food to go will have convenience at the heart of their shopping choices and will be looking for ready-made options. It helps if premises are close to offices with early opening times to catch shoppers looking to pick up food to go items on the way to work or at lunchtime. However, shops near homes with late opening hours may pick up more shoppers looking to fill lunchboxes for the next day.

Sales trends are a good pointer and prodder for making store changes as convenience stores, in particular, have found. The vegan and vegetarian trends show no sign of diminishing, and in all likelihood will continue to grow. Sales from other free-from diet trends, like gluten-free, dairy-free, also remain healthy. According to a Mintel survey, the free-from market grew 133% between 2013 and 2018. This means that convenience stores are increasingly finding it necessary to dedicate an area of the store to these special diets and to keep on top of the current health trends in order to stock an up-to-date offering. With such complex stocking requirements, clear labelling and sign posting and well laid out shelves are increasingly important in order for customers to find stores convenient. A store that is not well organised takes much longer to navigate and therefore becomes more of a chore to visit, warns Matthew Grenter, sales manager, Brioche Pasquier.

Changing tastes mean changing food stocking levels. Easy-to-grab and go items show promising growth, if IGD analysts’ forecasts are accurate. They see a 26.4% growth in food to go for the convenience sector by 2024. Within these changes, traditional sliced bread has taken a sales knock but other types of bread and continental bake products are coming to the fore, especially brioche.

Packaging may be a sales enhancer but consumers are looking for more responsible attitudes to its environmental impact. Border Biscuits, one of Britain’s largest biscuit producers now in the midst of a £3.5m investment to boost sales of its Hero products in particular, earlier this year removed over 90% of plastic from its packaging, saving 537 tonnes of CO2 emissions a year, and cut overall packaging weight by 50%. There has been an overwhelmingly positive response, says MD John Cunningham.

Prospects certainly look bright in the food to go sector, expected to reach £23.2bn by 2022, and the biggest beneficiary is expected to be convenience stores, adding £509m to sales. Adding hot food will generate a higher basket spend, currently put at over 10% more than the average food to go shopper. As the popularity of sandwiches continues to decline, 74% now buy meat, snacks or hot food to go regularly for lunch.

The fact that 8 out of 10 such shoppers have a microwave at work and more than half of them eat at their workplace, highlights the pivotal role that Rustlers (Kepak Consumer Foods), can play in this market.

Kepak is strengthening its positon in this high growth area with the launch of its most convenient solution yet. The new ‘cooking box’ format enables buyers to heat the fully assembled burger without even opening the pack.

Huhtamaki finds that breakfast is continuing on a rocketing trajectory, with sandwiches still driving sales and packaging playing a crucial part in the overall experience, explains Claire Moulson, marketing executive. The company’s packaging is ovenable, and microwaveable so that food can be cooked and handed straight to the customer, and being made from 100% paper board is recyclable.

The soft drinks segment of this market, worth £8.5bn, is also growing but consumers are aware more than ever of the health and safety issues, points out Amy Burgess, Senior Trades Communications Manager at Coca Cola. “They are continually on the look out for more low sugar options in their food and drink choices so it’s important for wholesalers to help retailers ensure they have a range of low sugar options.

This health concern is also echoed by Rebecca Bolt, head of innovation at Addo Food Group. One growth area they have noticed is in vegan and plant-based convenience foods. Figures show that flexitarian and semi vegetarian dieters now make up 91% of consumers. In the plant-based food to go market it is these consumers who present the biggest opportunities for wholesalers.

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