While the England football team didn't quite manage to go all the way in the 2006 World Cup, at least that year's unusually hot summer gave fans of al fresco eating something to celebrate. Spurred on by both the football and the hot weather, previously sun-starved UK consumers sent sales of barbecues soaring to a peak of £122.1m, according to TNS.

Of course, the fact that many of those new barbies sat rusting in the shed during the dismal summers of 2007 and 2008 outlines the dilemma that c-store managers face when stocking up on barbecue goods. While celebrity chef-inspired consumers may aspire to increasingly sophisticated outdoor meal occasions, Margate-style weather can put the dampener on Mediterranean menus.

Still, whatever the weather, Mintel reports that sales of barbecue food have grown by 10% every year in the UK and that even during the downpours of 2008 barbecue meal occasions grew to 78.9m. Better yet, this figure could be set to soar over the next few months as cash-strapped consumers look for meal occasions that are more cost-effective than eating out.

"People are looking for more and more ways to save money," says Howard Morrish, new business development controller at Levi Roots. "Dining out at restaurants and even indulging in take-away meals is becoming much less popular and consumers are now opting to eat at home, creating their meals from scratch. This trend is certain to increase once we hit the barbecue season as eating al fresco always adds a touch of excitement to a home-cooked meal."

According to Brian George, president of the National BBQ Association, the biggest growth area in the barbecue category is the 'after-work' midweek barbecue, where consumers take a decision to make the most of sunny weather on their way home from the office.

He believes that these consumers represent the biggest opportunity for c-store retailers because shoppers driven by impulse will shop locally rather than lose time in the sun by travelling to a supermarket. "It's far easier to go to your local c-store, grab something and then go," he says.

"When you look at our weather record here in the UK it's easy to understand why people barbecue on impulse," adds Mark Bosworth, brand manager at English Provender. "If consumers are some distance from their supermarket and want to stock up on the essentials then I can see how

c-stores could do quite nicely from the category this summer."

George believes that the simplest way to maximise sales is by creating an appealing al fresco fixture which includes staples such as sauces, rolls and meat, but also features vegetables, salads and snacks alongside relevant recipes.

"It's often easier for c-stores to do this than the multiples because they can move products around much faster in-store to reflect the weather," he says.

Barbecue basics

Although consumers are becoming more inventive with their barbecue choices (what the National Barbecue Association calls the 'burger to brochette' effect) research shows that it's the barbie basics that shoppers return to year after year. More exotic foods may be gaining in popularity, but burgers, sausages and rolls are still retail winners.

According to Matt Richards, brand manager for red meat at Birds Eye, in the meat category burgers and sausages continue to be the best-selling barbecue fare. "Burgers are still the most popular barbecue product and should be considered in all barbecue ranges," he says. "But, although the British population still loves burgers and sausages, they are getting more adventurous, and offering different formats is becoming essential."

This year Birds Eye is banking on its Steakhouse brand to drive growth and choice in the category. American-style flavours on offer include Sticky Chinatown Chicken Wings and Tennessee-style BBQ Ribs.

In the bread offer, sliced rolls are still shoppers' favourite accompaniment to meat, and with TNS data suggesting that only 20% of choices at a barbecue are health-related, white remains a popular choice.

"Rolls are just as popular as burgers when it comes to the traditional British barbecue menu," says Sarah Miskell, category director at Warburtons. "Our rolls remain the best-selling branded range, responsible for 51% of all branded roll sales."

Saucy thinking

No barbecue is complete with table sauces, either. Says Suzy Ford, category strategy manager for Unilever: "Table sauces are worth nearly £510m and are growing at 5.5%. With 99% of households buying table sauces, dressings and condiments, it's a key top-up item in convenience stores."

In the sauce sector consumers are likely to stay loyal to their favourites (a survey from uSwitch revealed that Britons are more willing to switch their supermarket than their favourite ketchup brand) while keeping a lookout for innovative new flavours.

Heinz currently dominates the market with both HP BBQ Sauce and Heinz Tomato Ketchup clear best-sellers in their categories. For the upcoming barbecue season Heinz is set to cash in on consumer demand for more sophisticated flavours with new Heinz Twisted Ketchup and HP Hot Sauces.

"HP Hot Sauces perfectly fit demand for more exciting, hotter flavours at home," says Sarah Brown, brand manager at HP. "Many of the spicy sauces that are already available focus on heat ahead of flavour and the lack of a recognisable brand makes some consumers wary that the products may be too hot and spicy."

Blue Dragon, which owns a 42% share of the Oriental condiments market is also choosing to turn up the heat, with a squeezable range that includes Sweet Chilli sauce and Malaysian Satay.

"Mainstream consumers are becoming increasingly familiar with the flavours of Eastern cuisine and want to be able to experiment by adding the classic Oriental tastes they enjoy most to their favourite Western barbecue dishes," says Tracy Hughes, Blue Dragon consumer and trade marketing controller.

Weather-proofing stock

With no major sporting events to drive meal occasion purchases this year, c-store retailers could be banking on a bumper barbecue season. But what happens if the weather gets in the way of consumers' al fresco eating plans?

English Provender's Bosworth thinks that when shopping for barbecue goods, value-conscious consumers are going to be seeking secondary uses for their food shop.

C-stores can minimise risk of unsold stock by making barbecue products appealing as an option for other meals, he believes.

"When buying for a barbecue people are going to be thinking 'Where else can I use this product?'" he says.

"Products like marinades used to be seen as purely a barbecue product, but are now used for other occasions."

Frozen items could also fare well because they don't have to be thrown away if the sunshine fails.

"Dedicating whole freezers to the barbecue range can be successful in the right climate," says Birds Eye's Richards. "But retailers should offer a year-round home entertaining range so that they aren't left with excess stock due to poor weather."
ones to watch...

Single life

English Provender is courting calorie-counting consumers with a range of single-serve salad dressing sachets.

rrp: £1.45

tel: 01635 528800

Hot stuff

Offering some American-style heat this summer is Weber, which is launching three new barbecue sauces to the UK market.

rrp: £2.09

tel: 01942 267090

Light work

So who's got a light? Bic's Megalighter promises to spark up more than 750 times, seeing ardent bbq addicts through the season.

rrp: £1.99

tel: 01895 827100

Soft option

As Britain's biggest selling adult soft drink brand, Schloer can add sparkle to non-drinkers' glasses at barbies this summer.

rrp: £2.19

tel: 01242 570 288

Veg out

For those looking to reduce meat consumption, Linda McCartney's Chicken Style Burgers can beef up any vegetarian offer.

rrp: £1.59

tel: 0800 626 697
top tips
l Put table sauces where customers will see them. As this is a key distress purchase, it is important customers can find them quickly

l Stock 'light' products if space allows. More than 40% of consumers use light products and aren't prepared to purchase standard variants

l Stock the best-sellers and stick to brands, allocating the most space to best-sellers

l Set up a barbecue fixture including mayonnaise, salad cream and dressings

l Keep the fixture stocked up. If customers can't find what they're looking for they will go elsewhere.

Source: Partners For Growth
retailer opinion
"Barbecue food is very important to us - its success really makes the difference between a good and bad summer.

"Most barbecue business is driven by impulse. It used to be dominated by the weekend trade, but now it's growing during the week. If it's a sunny evening midweek then people come after work and pick up their barbecue goods fresh for that night, or buy them and freeze them for the weekend.

"Last year Thai food was popular and this summer we're trialling 'sausages of the world'. People are getting more adventurous. The good thing about barbecue food is that if the weather's good and you stock what customers want, then they really do come in and buy everything!

"For retailers who want to get involved I'd say get a reasonable amount of stock in and keep a reserve in the freezer so you don't sell out."

Robert Byford, Byford's Food Hall, Leigh on Sea, Essex