This September, as parents begin to prepare their children for the new school year, many will be returning to the shops and revisiting their term-time routines of preparing meals for their children’s school packed lunches.

Dan Cocks, owner of Premier Whitstone Stores, Devon, sees this as a growing opportunity for the c-store sector. “The back-to-school mission is definitely a bigger mission now than it was a few years ago,” he explains.

“There are more and more shoppers coming in who are parents planning a meal for their child’s lunchbox, because more customers are shopping locally for convenience as opposed to travelling to the supermarkets,” he says.

According to HIM Research & Consulting, the back-to-school occasion represents a big opportunity for retailers, with more than half of shoppers making a packed lunch for their children every day or most days of the week, spending an average of £7.90 per week, per child, on lunchbox items when shopping in convenience stores.

Louise Hammond, owner of a Mace store in Halesworth, Suffolk, has a close relationship with many local families, and with a school just up the road, her store is a destination for parents.

“The town is quite small and you get to know people quite well,” she says. “We pride ourselves on being really well connected to the community here, and part of that is getting to know when parents will be in to shop for their child’s lunch for school. So we make sure we are well stocked ahead of the new school term particularly. This includes our most popular lines such as yogurts, cheese snacks and pre-packed sandwiches, along with savouries and pastries.

“Communication is the most important thing in my opinion, because our customers feel like we know them and have a relationship with them and as a result they feel more comfortable shopping here and we can find out exactly what they want.”

Jatinder Sahota, owner of Max’s Londis in Sheppey, Kent, thinks local retailers can play a big part in the community by being reliable destinations for busy parents by stocking up on lunchbox fillers and school essentials.

“When we spoke to our customers and looked at what products were performing well in-store it was clear that the lunchbox and school occasion was a big opportunity for us,” he says. “Parents look for choice, fair prices and convenience when shopping for the occasion.

“There are plenty of mums and dads in the area and schools that aren’t far away either, so it has always been important for us to stock a wide range of items suitable for children’s lunches, and parents often say how much they appreciate our competitive prices and special offers on popular products as well as the range we offer as it saves them having to drive to a supermarket or go elsewhere,” Jatinder adds.

“I think the convenience aspect of the range is what drives customers to the store as customers are living increasingly busy lives. Both mums and dads are busy with work so they don’t have as much time as they did to make sandwiches and prepare food from home.”

The trend of pre-preparing school meals the night before appears to be gradually declining in parts of the country, in favour of pre-packed products, he believes.

Jatinder explains: “Sliced bread, salads and cooked meats and other fillings are still popular but I have noticed a growing trend in parents picking up prepacked chilled sandwiches and snacks because they are convenient and they are often a bit more fun for the kids, like cheesestrings, Dairylea lunchables and our yogurt ranges. Schools here offer a refrigerated service so children can leave their lunch in a fridge at school now too which means chilled snacks are even more popular. Other leading products are Babybels - we are selling more of the individual ones than multipacks - as well as mini scotch eggs, yogurts, fruit snack pots and single pieces of fruit.”

Noting that consumers are looking for less traditional lunchbox solutions, Chloé Féminier, head of insight and planning at Bel UK, says research from Kantar Worldwide Panel shows UK sliced bread sales are in steady decline.

She says: “Despite declining bread sales, lunchboxes have continued to experience positive growth and the market is currently valued at £212.7m. Bel UK works to ensure that its products are not only enjoyable and fun, but also meet and exceed the ever-changing needs of the consumer. Our consumers expect to be ‘wowed’ every day and inspired by their lunchbox - lunchtimes are no longer simply about satisfying hunger, but are also about experiencing new flavours and formats.”

Meeta Raja owns Best-one Raja Stores on Oronsay Road, Leicester, which is located a short walk away from three schools, making it a destination for dads and mums who come in to pick up meals for their children.

Meeta says: “The back to school occasion is a big opportunity for retailers, especially for our store as there are several schools in very close proximity to us and although we see uplift in sales at the start of the school year, we maintain high sales from the school meals occasion throughout the year because of our location.

“In the summer holidays it is very quiet on that front, but at the start of the school week we are at our most busy and make sure everything is available and fully stocked. Customers come in a few times a week for lunchbox items and tend to do it that way rather than coming in once a week and stocking up.”

Féminier points out that Mini Babybel is sold in a format perfect for this buy-as-you-go shopping method. “With the growing demand for lunch on the go, Mini Babybel singles allow consumers to buy Mini Babybel exactly how they want to,” she says. “Individually barcoded Mini Babybel allows busy consumers to find the well-loved cheese in small stores and sandwich fixture locations.”

Meeta adds: “There is still a demand for sliced bread and traditional sandwich fillers, but the trend for us is that our customers are increasingly looking for chilled pre-packed snacks as sandwich replacements, and that is why we stock much more of those products than sliced cooked meats and cheese slices and traditional fillers.

“Our most popular products are Attack-A-Snack chilled cheese wraps, Dairylea Lunchables and dunkers and Wildlife yogurt tubes. I think this is because shoppers want something that they can pick up that is already prepared and is the right size to fit into a lunchbox. It also tastes good and there is a fun element there too, so children love them.”

Lindon Grey is the store manager at Tates Spar in Crewe, Cheshire, which is located just a short walk from a school. He says that the store has become a destination for parents shopping for lunchbox fillers.

He agrees that this little and often trend is evident in his store. “We are busy with parents coming in to buy food for their children’s lunchboxes throughout the year, with a surge at important times of the school year such as start of term and after half terms,” he says. “The trend now is for them to visit the store a few times a week to top up on food for lunches as opposed to coming in once a week to stock up. This is because of the convenience of being able to shop like that and not in one go at a supermarket.”

He has also noticed that an increasing number of customers are buying more pre-packed sandwiches for their children’s lunch instead of making them. “I think this is because they lead busy lives,” he explains. “It’s the convenience aspect that is a winner for us. The Spar fresh sandwich range is very good and offers a range of options, with traditional fillings such as ham and cheese remaining popular with children as there seems to be more picky eaters generally than not, especially among primary school 
children who stick to what they know. While for adult packed lunches or meals, they tend to express more of an interest in trying something new and look to new flavour innovations such as chicken tikka and other flavours.”

Healthy options

A lot has changed over the last decade in terms of meal time standards at schools as the spotlight focuses more on health and nutrition, with some schools in the UK even banning food items from children’s lunchboxes because of high levels of salt or sugar. As a result of this, it is becoming increasingly challenging for retailers to keep one step ahead when selecting their ranges and offering a variety of products for health-conscious parents.

Féminier says increased consumer awareness of sugar 
content in foods is also likely to see growth in savoury lunchbox items. “Bel UK, with its portfolio of quality, convenient products, is well placed to deliver exciting, innovative solutions,” she says.

With increasing scrutiny from schools regarding children’s packed lunches, there’s a big opportunity for healthier snacking brands. Whitworths, which creates a variety of healthy children’s snacks, says parents are looking for natural snacks for their children.

Matthew Wakelin from Whitworths says: “Unhealthy items such as chocolate bars are no longer allowed in some schools across the UK, with the aim being that parents pack their children’s lunches with healthier items such as fruit. Our Sunny Raisin and Sunny Fruit Mix-ups are perfect, all-natural lunchbox additions that meet these requirements.

“Sunny Fruit Mix-ups are real dried and chopped fruit pieces, with no added sugar, in three varieties; strawberries and sultanas, apricot and mango, and pineapple and raisins. Healthy snacks such as dried fruit, that haven’t been processed into bars, are a great alternative to this, offering kids a delicious snack that doesn’t get damaged in the lunchbox - which is why our Sunny Raisin and Sunny Mix-ups make perfect lunchbox snacks.”

Snack manufacturer Natural Balance Foods says healthier snacking is high on consumers’ agendas. “Research shows 40% of consumers are switching to healthier snack alternatives and one in four consumers look for nutritional benefits when choosing a snack and we believe this trend is reflected in the choices parents make for their children,” says Marina Love, marketing director, Natural Balance Foods.

“100% raw fruit and nut bars and new Nakd Nibbles are healthier alternatives to sugar-laden confectionery and ideal for children’s lunchboxes. The Nakd Infused raisins range is equally suited to lunchboxes and comes in cherry, lemon, pineapple, orange, tangy lime and ‘crazy’ cola flavours and each 25g bag is fat-free, contains only 68 calories and contains no added-sugar.”

Research from HIM found that fresh fruit was the most popular item picked for children’s lunchboxes, with 74% of parents opting for either an individual piece of fruit or fruit snack box. Jatinder says that these trends have been reflected in his sales.

He adds: “Our fresh fruit range has always been strong and there is an increasing trend of parents picking up an apple or a banana for their child as the nation becomes a little more health conscious.

“The key seems to be balance. A balanced diet at schools is encouraged, so that doesn’t mean crisps aren’t popular – they are still a mainstay – but parents are balancing it out a bit more.”

Making vegetables a little more BEAR-able

Bear, makers of natural nibbles made from just pure fruit and veg, has responded to families struggling to get their children to eat more vegetables with its latest product BEAR ‘Claws’.

Ishen Paran, sales director at Bear, says: “A cheese and pickle sandwich with white bread, a packet of crisps and a can of cola - this used to be the picture of a generic kid’s lunch box. But an increased education around and a media spotlight on food has resulted in a growing demand for healthier products and driving a shift in lunchboxes. Parents are favouring more wholesome, nutritional options included in kids’ lunchboxes, such as fruit and water, according to Kantar.

“We launched new ‘Claws’ into market with 1/3 veg to help meet a growing challenge families face in getting vegetables into their children’s diets. Research by Bear Nibbles on Mumsnet found that 81% of mums were concerned about the amount of highly processed ingredients in children’s fruit snack products that aren’t clearly labelled. Too much ‘innovation’ in the category these past few years has simply been a downsizing of portion formats, or a reduction in sugar.”

Bear will launch a Back to School campaign for Yoyos and Alphabites in September.

Quenching the thirst

The trend for healthier eating has heavily impacted on the choices parents make in store, particularly on their choice of drink. A recent survey conducted by flavoured water brand, Perfectly Clear, found that a massive 80% of consumers are now concerned about sugar content in drinks. The survey consisted of 1,000 UK-based 18-40 year olds, and comes at a time when the media has dubbed sugar the ‘new tobacco’.

Maurice Newton, sales and marketing director at CBL Drinks, says: “When it comes to lunchtime or after school beverages, children often opt for sweet, flavoursome drinks, but with this often comes added sugar content. In the ever-more health-conscious market, this can cause problems for parents who find themselves torn between providing a satisfying lunch for their child, and ensuring they maintain a balanced and healthy diet. As a result of this, we are seeing a growing trend geared towards drinks that are flavoursome, yet still contain little sugar. Perfectly Clear flavoured water is a popular alternative to sugar-laden drinks such as juices and carbonates.”

Jatinder has also noticed this trend, he says: “Where drinks are concerned, healthier alternatives are leading the way and have been for a long time. The reduced sugar four-packs of Robinson’s Fruit Shoot and Capri Sun are by far the most popular choices amongst parents, followed by smaller single bottles of Tropicana orange juice. It is rare to see a parent come in and pick up a fizzy drink for their child’s lunchbox, even the diet or reduced sugar varieties. I think this is an outdated trend and as a responsible retailer I don’t stock fizzy drinks near the kid’s chilled snacks, instead I use up the space to stock our popular lines of drinks.”

While this is the case for Jatinder, Leicester retailer Meeta says that soft drinks are often popular with older children who come into the store unaccompanied by their parents. She says: “Fizzy drinks are popular with older kids who come into the store themselves, but for younger children’s lunchboxes and secondary school children’s lunches, they are not 
popular because people are being a bit more health conscious and because of school regulations about what items are allowed and not allowed at school. Flavoured water such as Volvic’s flavoured varieties is our most popular choice of drink for children, closely followed by juices like Fruit Shoot and Capri Sun.”

Amy Burgess, trade communications manager at Coca-Cola European partners, says: “By the government introducing new laws last year to ensure that children are enjoying healthier meals, many schools now inspect packed lunches brought from home to ensure they are compliant, meaning it’s important for retailers to focus on offering healthier lunchbox options for parents to choose from.

“Our Capri-Sun no added sugar range is ideal for a healthier lunchbox. Sold in 10x200ml multipacks, the addition of this no calorie variant is enabling parents to supply their children with a low-sugar drink which still offers the flavours kids love, including orange, blackcurrant and summer fruits.

“Another option is Capri-Sun fruit crush, which is a combination of 75% pure fruit juice and 25% spring water. Available in apple and blackcurrant, apple and pear and tropical variants, our 5x200ml multipacks allow shoppers to stock up for the week ahead.”

According to HIM, bottled water is the most popular drink option for children’s lunchboxes, with 42% of parents opting for still or sparkling water drinks. Fruit juice was identified as the second most popular (31%) with soft drinks still the third most popular option (29%).

Meeta has been in close communication with the schools in her local area and has worked with them to introduce an in-store promotion that entitles children to collect a voucher to claim a free bottle of water from the store during the final summer months of the school year. The deal has been supported by parents who visit the store for their top up shops.

Building a case for bread

While sliced bread sales are down -1.6% (Nielsen), it doesn’t mean that homemade meals have had their day, as sandwich bread alternatives are having an big impact on the market, with sales up 1.4%, according to Allied Bakeries.

“The simple yet delicious sandwich remains a popular lunchtime staple in the UK,” says Zoe Taphouse, category director at Allied Bakeries.

“It forms the foundation of consumers’ lunches, with sandwiches remaining the most popular in-home lunch item as well as being included in 60% of lunch boxes. Lunch is a particularly important meal occasion for Wrapped Bakery, with a third of all bakery consumption occasions at lunchtime, either in home or carried out, compared to 18% of all food occasions.”

As a direct result of growth in healthier and varied sandwich options, Allied Bakeries has launched Kingsmill Sandwich Thins and crumpet thins, which is claims is perfect for both children’s and adult’s lunchboxes.

Taphouse says: “Kingsmill Sandwich Thins are a tasty, soft, pre-sliced thin roll, available in white, 50/50, tasty whole meal and seeded varieties, all at 99 calories each.”

Crisps stay in the bag

While there is an increasing trend for lunchbox and back to school shoppers looking at healthier snacking alternatives, Meeta finds that crisps are still a mainstay of children’s lunchboxes, but are enjoyed in moderation and as part of a balanced diet. This is backed up by research from HIM, which found that 56% of parents still put crisps in their children’s lunch.

Meeta says: “Crisps continue to be a lunchbox mainstay, not just for children’s lunches but also adults too. Multipacks are the most popular and when multipacks of Walkers are on sale for £1 they just fly off the shelves. Our 20p and 30p crisp lines are also popular because they offer great value. Space Raiders, Transformer snacks and Bobby’s crisp ranges are very successful and we can make good margins on them too. Older children who have their own pocket money visit the store too and they seem to buy large grab bags of £1 PMPs of crisps. The Slushy drinks machine is a great way of topping up spend through impulse too.”

Jatinder agrees: “Multipacks of big brands like Walkers are the most popular because the packs are slightly smaller than the individual packs so they suit lunchboxes even better and parents can make a saving buying a multipack too.”

Lindon stands by crisps as the number one snack to be enjoyed by children as part of a balanced lunchbox. He says: “When Spar runs promotions on a range of mutipacks of crisps, especially on big brands, customers tend to buy in bulk as opposed to coming in and buying a pack a day for 40p or 50p. I think parents are more concerned about what they feed their children now, but crisps are still a popular item because of the pack sizes and they can fit in a lunchbox well.”


Half of shoppers with kids say having healthy options on offer at their local convenience store is important to them, according to HIM. But it isn’t always that straightforward for parents to choose healthy options, with plenty of products on the market ‘disguised’ as healthy, says David Street, marketing manager for The Premium Snack Company.

‘Nothing But’, is a range of portion-controlled, freeze-dried snacks made by the process of taking fresh fruit and vegetables and removing solely the water, so ingredients retain levels of nutritional content comparable to those offered by fresh, but offer something entirely new in terms of texture and appearance.

“Parents are failing to be seduced by claims of ‘reduced sugar’ or ‘low fat’, now aware that many of these products are simply masquerading as healthy choices, and condemning the replacement of natural ingredients with artificial alternatives,” Street says. “A key challenge, however, is that most parents see fresh produce as the only means of achieving these goals, whilst research continually demonstrates the widespread aversion amongst younger children to the consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables.

“The result has been a relative explosion in NPD across the snacking sector, as manufacturers seek to identify solutions to satisfy both camps. Nothing But products are perfect for children’s lunchboxes, offering nutrition, great taste and the ideal package size.”

Nothing But’s range includes Sliced Beetroot and Parnsip, Mange Tout and Red Pepper, Pea and Sweetcorn, and Strawberry and Banana (RRP £1.25).

Essential stationary

While food suitable for children’s lunchboxes continues to be the number one driver of customers fulfilling the back to school shopper mission, it can also pay for retailers to think outside the box when it comes to their stock.

“We have just started to stock cards and stationery targeting children preparing to go back to school,” says Dan Cocks. “We have noticed the growing trend in shoppers with an association with the back to school mission, and as a direct result we have introduced a larger greetings cards range extending to ‘thank you teacher’ messages or congratulatory messages for graduates or students who achieved good exam results, which have equally picked up, more so at the end of the school term than at the beginning of the new school year,” he adds.

Jatinder says that he too has caught onto the trend and says some customers come in at the start of the school year looking for stationery as they don’t have the chance to do an equipment shop during the summer.

“So we are looking at introducing stationery, note pads and essentials to the store for a limited time only when we feel like there will be a big demand for them, and the start of the school year will be a perfect time to do that,” he says.

Refreshing the adult lunchbox

It’s not just kids’ lunchboxes that are being put under the microscope, as adult lunch boxes are impacted by the nation’s growing concerns over how much sugar they consume.

Coca-Cola, which has been innovating as part of its reduced sugar strategy, has introduced a new recipe for new ‘Coca-Cola Zero Sugar’, which is being supported by a £10m marketing campaign.

Amy Burgess, trade communications manager at Coca-Cola European partners, says: “We recently announced the next step in our strategy to help people reduce their sugar intake with a new and improved sugar-free Coca-Cola, released this summer, promising to be a popular addition to lunchboxes. Coca-Cola Zero Sugar has replaced Coca-Cola Zero, and tastes even more like original Coca-Cola, but without sugar.”

Elsewhere, Coca-Cola product Oasis ‘Mighty Drops’ offers adults an easy to pack drink solution to be enjoyed at lunchtime.

“Oasis Mighty Drops is a super-concentrated squash which can be carried around easily, and is an ideal way of helping consumers keep up their intake of bottled water by flavouring it. Available in raspberry lemonade, mixed berry, and mango tropical flavours, it’s the ideal choice for on-the-go refreshment,” adds Burgess.

Back to school point of sale

It can make a huge difference to merchandise popular lunchbox and back to school lines effectively with specific means of communication, whether that is through POS material or digital campaigns.

Dan says: “We will be introducing some back to school POS material to the store as the school term draws nearer and we will have effective labelling that carries this message too.

“It is difficult to merchandise stationery because you can’t really stock it next to chilled snacks or lunchbox items, so it is all about stocking up on these items and using effective messaging and in-store communication to let people know that everything they need for the school year is here, as well as helping them navigate around the store,” he adds.

“Our most popular ranges at the start of the school year are multipacks of crisps and children’s cheese snacks for lunchboxes. We expect these to be popular again this year and will keep these areas well stocked.”

Lindon Grey says he expects Spar’s head office to provide materials to help communicate with busy parents. He says: “All of our promotional material is provided directly and simply from Spar’s head office and usually all promotional communication is perfectly timely, so I predict a back to school series of promotions as September approaches. We will be engaging with our customers also through word of mouth and letting them know that they can pick up everything they need for school lunches from us.”

Jatinder also believes in the importance of being loud and proud of your in-store promotions to let customers know you’re there for them ahead of the school term.

He says: “Londis times its promotions excellently and, as the new school year draws closer, we will be running its promotions and using its online facilities to print our own POS material.

“We will also have themed back-to-school material and run promotions and discounts on our popular ranges. We merchandise all the chilled lunchbox items together in our biggest chiller too, so it helps parents to pick and choose items and make up their minds.”

Bernard Matthews makes a mark

Bernard Matthews has introduced a range of £1 pricemarked packs (PMPs) across its leading cooked meats range in time for the new school term.

Hannah Margereson, marketing controller for cooked meats at Bernard Matthews, says: “Parents are looking for healthy fillings for lunchboxes, but ones which are tasty and that they know the kids will eat and not waste.

“Bernard Matthews’ roast turkey breast pieces are an ideal kid’s lunchbox product, suitable for sandwiches, salads and cold pasta dishes, and even on their own as a tasty snack. They are low in fat, containing less than 1% fat, and high in protein, making them an ideal healthy ingredient for children. More than three-quarters of consumers choose this product for the great taste, and 42% because they are quick and easy to prepare.”

The £1 PMP range includes: roast chicken breast pieces; chicken breast slices; roast turkey breast pieces; sweet chilli breast pieces; tikka turkey breast pieces; BBQ turkey breast pieces; American fried wafer thin turkey ham; wafer thin turkey ham; and wafer thin turkey.