C-store managers not yet convinced about the benefits of stocking up on canned goods should take a quick peek into customers' recycling bins to get a glimpse of their popularity. 

According to data compiled by the Steel Can Recycling Information Bureau, consumers suffering under the credit crunch are eating 20% more canned food and drink than in 2007.
As Mintel points out, canned food is proving popular during the recession because it's easy to prepare, convenient and relatively cheap. Canned meats and poultry provide a simple source of protein with little wastage, while tinned vegetables offer a quick hit of vitamins and minerals. Traditional products such as baked beans and soups also have an instant comfort appeal that consumers can relate to. Figures from Mintel highlight a sales rise, with canned food worth £718m in the UK, with a predicted rise to £792m by 2012.

Although premium canned products represent good value for money, retailers can find that they help boost till ring, too. According to Heinz, grocery shoppers are among c-stores' most lucrative consumers, spending an average of £8.52 per visit.

Mintel reports that ambient soups make up 13.9% of the overall canned food market, and the possibility of a cold winter ahead could make for great sales.

"Soups are set to continue their rise in popularity this autumn," says Heinz customer marketing manager Lorraine Smith. "Convenience retailers are perfectly placed to capitalise on this growth as consumers will often drop in to stock up on their favourite winter warmers, whether it's for lunch or on the way home from work."

Value for money makes canned products appealing to cash-poor consumers, but shoppers are also looking for healthier options in their grocery shop. The value canned category has benefited most from this trend, with sales over the past 12 months rising 14.1% to £402.5m, according to IRI.

Time-poor shoppers looking to add to their 5-a-day will often stock up on tinned peas and sweetcorn to avoid buying fresh goods which could go to waste. Tinned products are also a way to help reluctant kids eat their vegetables.

"According to research, 73% of British children like to eat sweetcorn," says General Mills UK managing director Ed Culf. "Parents can be reassured that Green Giant sweetcorn provides at least one of the recommended 5-a-day portions of fruit and vegetables."

In the drive towards health, sugar and salt levels are an issue manufacturers are keen to address. Over the past 10 years Heinz has reduced salt and sugar levels in its pasta, beans and sauce offer.

"Over the past five years Heinz has cut the added salt in Heinz Beanz by more than 30%. We're committed to making further cuts without compromising on taste," says Heinz marketing manager John Alderman.

Positioning canned goods as a healthier option for shoppers could also help boost the image of the category overall. As the economy improves more upmarket shoppers may shun cans for more premium products. And the success of brands such as The New Covent Garden Soup Co has made consumers seek out food products in pouches and Tetra Paks, not cans.

The challenge for manufacturers now is to mix the convenience of a can with the kind of ingredients that health- and provenance-conscious customers will be looking for when they have a little more money in their pocket.

Packaging innovation

Manufacturers are increasingly innovating through their packaging. Earlier this year John West launched new 'No Drain Less Mess Tuna' to consolidate its position in the £475m canned fish market.

Humbly described as "the most significant innovation in canned fish, ever", technology allows the tuna to be canned without excess liquid. Since the launch 12 million cans have been sold.

Just like Heinz Beanz Snap Pots, which were designed to fit straight into the microwave, innovative packaging puts the focus on convenience and time-saving when preparing food. It also helps drive the canned sector upmarket in the eyes of consumers. Both Heinz Snap Pots and No Drain Tuna have proved successful in the short-term, but will cash-poor consumers always be willing to pay a premium for packaging?

"It will depend on whether they value the time saving or other benefit of the packaging as much as the premium charge for the innovation," says SalesOut commercial director Steve Collins.

Retailer opinion

Steve Morris, Dorrington Village Stores, Shrewsbury:

"Canned goods aren't the sexiest things to stock, but they do make a great add-on purchase for consumers. New packaging innovations, like in the tuna category, create interest, and specially priced packs have appeal during a recession. We also try to make space for twin-packs, which are popular.

"Brands like Heinz are well-respected, but people can look down their noses at tinned meats; maybe they'd prefer to see meat meals in a pouch."