With chicken fajitas and Thai green curry becoming as everyday as the full English, canny c-store retailers are expanding world foods ranges 

Anyone fancy an ‘English’? Today shoppers’ globe-trotting taste-buds mean that their weekly menu is just as likely to feature vegetable korma or pulled-pork burritos as a traditional roast dinner.

This may be even more likely since manufacturers have doubled-down on stir-in sauces and meal kits, all designed to give consumers a quick and convenient way to spice up their lives.

According to Mintel, close to nine out of 10 people eat ethnic foods regularly at home, with menu mainstays Chinese and Indian being chowed-down on at least twice a month by a third of Britons.

Plus, it seems that shoppers are expanding their international recipe repertoire, too, as Mexican and Thai food gains ground – eaten by 51% and 42% of people respectively.

One of the big takeaways from these stats is that foods which might once have seemed exotic are now part and parcel of the core c-store grocery offer.

“I think that Chinese and Indian foods are really seen as British foods now,” says Sam Coldbeck from Wharfedale Premier in Hull.

“We stock a selection of products from the main world foods brands – big names such as Patak’s and Uncle Ben’s. Our customers aren’t looking for anything particularly authentic; they want an easy way to make the British version of an Indian dish, such as a Chicken tikka or a korma. For us it’s all about offering that range.”

However, the appeal of world foods can go beyond people wanting simple ways to recreate take-away tastes in their own home. Richard Inglis, owner of Parkview Retail Ltd, which runs three Welcome stores in Southampton, maintains that switched-on shoppers are seeking fresh food experiences.

“I think that in the past couple of years TV cooking shows have inspired people to experiment with different tastes and flavours,” he says. “Customers are getting more adventurous. But one of the big drivers for world food for us is healthy eating. I think that today people want to know exactly what’s going into their food – and world food can be quite healthy.”

He says that the main World Food categories at his store are Chinese, Indian and Mexican – all of which offer plenty of opportunities for associated products to boost basket spend.

In fact, Richard ensures complementary accompaniments are provided wherever in the world customers want to go with their menu. “Curry sauces are very solid for us, but it’s not just about having the sauce itself; it’s stocking the poppadums, the chutneys and the naan breads that go alongside them. It’s the same for Mexican. You’ve got the salsas, the sour cream and guacamole that people can just swing by and pick up when they’re on a meal-for-tonight mission.”

The exotic every day

The big story around world foods over the past decade is the way that once exotic products have been absorbed into the grocery mainstream. And according to Jag Singh, marketing manager at Tropical Sun Foods, it’s a process that’s set to continue.

“The overall category is continuing to deliver strong growth across all channels,” he says.

“Many businesses are encouraging this cross-over process by taking specialist products to the mainstream. Over the coming year retailers will increasingly position world foods products as part of everyday grocery.”

Singh singles out coconut products as a key driver of this movement - pointing out that the category currently enjoys 5% growth (IRI).

“This is why we have continued to expand our coconut offering,” he says. “We’ve got new pack sizes in our Coconut Milk Powder, new Organic Coconut Sugar in a pouch and our Creamed Coconut in a convenient sachet format.”

Singh believes that to maximise sales of world food products it pays to “continually engage” shoppers.

“Ask them what they would like to see in-store, and whether they might be interested in specific lines you are considering,” he advises.

“One simple way is to host in-store sampling. This really gets people engaged and not only increases the likelihood of purchase, but helps to get people thinking about world foods.”

Ready, steady cook

Richard says that ready meals are key to the world foods category as well. He believes that the days when “a chicken korma ready meal would just be loads of sauce and a tiny bit of meat” are now long gone as manufacturers up their game.

“We’ve got access to the Co-op range of ready meals and they’ve really gone all out to produce the best quality with an eye on health,” he says.

“People care about what goes into their food: they like to see how many calories are in there and how much salt each meal contains.

“It’s important to have a spread of ready meals. So while lasagna always does well, you can stock the korma and stock the madras because they do sell, too. You can’t really get away with just stocking one or two options these day.”

Meanwhile, over in Whitstable, Kent, Sam Cornelius from the new Eat 17 store says that they’re approaching the category from a high-end, artisan angle.

“World foods really is a bit of everything for us,” he explains. “The big brands are all well represented in our range, but we have some more exotic products that the customer perhaps wouldn’t expect to find here – for instance, our Sri Lankan curry sauce, which is a different take on Indian.”

Sam adds that many customers come in looking for an ingredient they need for a curry, such as lemongrass, while others are actively seeking meal ideas in the aisles. To help them find inspiration the store has point-of-sale cards in front of the products to flag up their provenance and suggest how they can be used.

One unique line that gives the store a true point of difference is its range of Empenadas, which complement Eat 17’s food-to-go selection. “It’s a South American street food, traditionally served to use up any leftovers. Think of a pastry case in a half-moon shape with fillings such as cheese and chorizo,” he says.

He reports that they sell really well. “They’re quite exotic and different from anything else you might pick up in Whitstable,” he points out.

While South American food does the business for Eat 17, Richard reckons that carefully-chosen products from further north in the USA are the key to attracting customers in Southampton.

“We’ve done a lot of American confectionery over the past couple of years, and find it’s a big growth market,” he says.

At the store, sweet-toothed customers will find US variants of sweets that aren’t yet widely available over this side of the pond, such as coffee-flavoured M&Ms and Rocky Road Snickers Bars. “However, the biggest growth area for us has been American soft drinks,” he adds. “We do a whole range of Arizona iced teas which have done really well. I think part of what makes them popular is that they come in a 695ml can which stands out in-store.

“We get people come in specially to buy them. We’ve got customers that pop in on their way from Portsmouth to get a drink from us just because they can’t find them over there.”

All of which goes to show, while many retailers naturally look east for world food ideas, some find the USA is a better source of crowd-pleasing products customers are already acquainted with through movies or TV. Time to phone your wholesaler and strike up your own ‘special relationship’…

Worldly wise

 Younger shoppers aren’t getting excited by the current cooking sauces available in stores, so Sharwoods is hoping to spice things up with its World Inspired range. There are four exotic flavours to choose from, each serving four people.

Hot stuff from grace foods

Over the 10 years that world foods specialist Grace Foods UK has been in business, head of marketing Nyree Chambers has seen customers’ palates evolve.

“People are more willing to try new things,” she says. “They see food programmes on TV, get inspired and think ‘Wow! I’m going to make that for dinner’.

“That’s an important factor for convenience stores because the impulse is so immediate. If you’re dreaming about making something at 3pm on a Sunday afternoon, when the big supermarkets are about to close, you’re going to go to your local shop to get the final few ingredients.”

To support c-stores through its 10th anniversary year, Grace Foods is refreshing its portfolio.

This move includes rolling out some new chickpea and lentil lines in its from-scratch range and adding fresh variants and pack formats for its Grace Coconut Water selection.

But the big news for heat-lovers is the launch of its new limited-edition Carolina Reaper chilli sauce, which Chambers believes is even hotter than sauce made from the super-fiery ghost chilli. Hence the attention-grabbing ‘heat warning’ on the side of the pack.

“We’ve all tasted it, and I will say you should proceed with caution!” she says.