when faced with miserable weather, many people love nothing more than curling up on the sofa with a hot drink and a pile of their favourite biscuits - especially when there's nothing but bad news around.

"The biscuit category is proven to be resilient when the economy is facing a recession," asserts Sue Garfitt, head of insights, category and marketing planning at Burton's Foods. "It is at harder times that consumers often indulge in little treats to cheer themselves up."

The credit crunch might mean everyone's watching their pennies, but biscuits are one of the last things that people cut back on, because they're seen as a relatively inexpensive treat.

Cadbury Fingers are a good example, being the number one brand in the special treat segment and having performed particularly well in recent months, according

to Garfitt.

In fact, indulgence is a big trend in biscuits and new products reflect this, such as the Chunkie Extremely Chocolatey Fruit & Nut Cookie, containing dark chocolate chips, milk chocolate chunks, nuts and raisins, and covered with milk chocolate. Fran Kitson, Chunkie Cookies brand manager, says: "Consumer trends are showing a continued growth in treating occasions and consumers are looking for more affordable luxuries, such as biscuits, to treat themselves during difficult times."

Other brands are looking to take people's mind off the recession by focusing on nostalgia. Wagon Wheels, for example, will be packaged in gold and in a Caramel variant for a limited time.

Recipe for success

Within c-stores, both healthier and special treats are in volume and value growth, ahead of total convenience (Nielsen MAT to January 2009). However, Mintel reports that one in four consumers now eat fewer biscuits than previously. If so, how do retailers make sure they keep regular customers and attract new shoppers into the category?

"The best c-stores are keen to learn, know their customer and understand the trends driving the market," UBUK commercial manager Nick Stuart says. "However, research still shows that only 47% of impulse outlets stock McVitie's Chocolate Digestives. It is extremely important that to maximise their sales and profits, the trade stocks the biggest selling brands."

But brands aren't always best, and c-store shoppers are increasingly buying own label cakes and biscuits, according to the latest TNS data (52 weeks ending December 28, 2008). It shows that sales of cakes in the convenience sector were worth £98.9m, up 0.4%. However, of this total, branded cake sales were down 6.3% to £58.1m, while own label products rose 11.7% to £40.7m. It was a similar picture with biscuits where sales of private label were up 17% to £19.1m, while branded biscuits fell 4.3% to £102m - in a category worth £121.1m but shrinking each year - down 1.5% in 2008.

Although own label biscuits have traditionally been less popular, it seems that convenience shoppers are now much more willing to try them. "Within biscuits, price has become more important with stores needing to be seen to compete with bigger grocery outlets," says Burton's Garfitt. "Pricemarked packs and consumer promotions help this perception."

Chris Webster, director of sales and marketing at sales channel expert Jenks, agrees: "Pricemarked packs are a major part of the offer, giving consumers the confidence that they're not being ripped off."

He believes that many c-store retailers haven't yet cracked the biscuits category. "It is important that retailers offer the right balance between the various biscuit categories (such as everyday, discount, everyday treat and special treat). You can't just go to the cash and carry and pick up packs of digestives and custard creams anymore."

Working with Fox's, Jenks will be talking to independent retailers, offering planogram suggestions through wholesaler publications, trade press and leaflets. He adds: "Biscuits often need better positioning in convenience stores - sometimes they're round the back when they work better next to confectionery."

It seems to have worked for McVitie's, which reports that when its snack packs were merchandised in confectionery, sales grew by 38%.

Or how about cross-merchandising? After all, stocking biscuits near tea and coffee can encourage shoppers to buy both.

Cakes and biscuits may not be growing categories, but let's not forget that most Brits still have a sweet tooth. The major challenge in the short-term is not so much capturing new customers as ensuring that existing ones don't leave the sector altogether or reduce their consumption in favour of other snacks or treats.
Top 10
1 Nestlé KitKat

2 McVitie's Milk Chocolate Digestives

3 Kellogg's Special K Bar

4 McVitie's Digestives

5 McVitie's Chocolate HobNobs

6 McVitie's Go-ahead! Yogurt Breaks

7 McVitie's Jaffa Cakes

8 Burton's Maryland Cookies

9 McVitie's Digestives

10 Burton's Jammie Dodgers

Source: UBUK
Portable portions
Snacking is a key trend and Kraft Foods' Mikado should help retailers take advantage, according to Jack Pipe, convenience sales customer director. "Mikado is helping biscuits to break out of the biscuit tin and into the on-the-go snacking market," he says.

The ultra-thin biscuit sticks are covered with milk chocolate, with one end left uncoated to make on-the-go eating easier. See p53 for more details.

Meanwhile, Burton's is moving its Jammie Dodgers brand into a new out-of-home product - Splat Snacks, a crunchy, chewy splat-shaped biscuit and cereal snack with raspberry fruit pieces. It also has a new Cadbury Brunch range out, which includes BrunchBreaks - slices baked with wholegrain and honey.

Not long ago, McVitie's packaged United Biscuits UK's (UBUK's) six leading sweet impulse snacking products, including Chocolate Digestives and Jaffa Cakes, into Minis and Snack Pack formats, which it reckons are the best growth opportunity for convenience retailers.

It's a similar picture with cakes, where convenience is shaping consumers' habits. Few of us stop for tea and cake at home but are more likely to eat a muffin with coffee at work, or even share cake bites with friends over a glass of wine.

It means that sales of large cakes have stagnated while celebration cakes have suffered from low levels of innovation and poor-performing film franchises, according to Mintel. Meanwhile, individual cakes, slices and cake bars are driving market growth due to their convenience and portability.

Premier Foods' head of marketing Matt Hunt says: "Consumers see packaged cakes as a convenient option because they have a longer shelf and cupboard life, particularly appealing to families and empty-nesters."

The company hopes its new product development work will also encourage younger consumers to tuck into cake rather than crisps: "This includes delivering relevant pack sizes to inspire them to buy ambient cake outside of wanting it as a store cupboard staple," adds Hunt.
top tips
Stock a consistent range of top sellers

Where possible, sell pricemarked packs as they outsell standard packs by nearly 30%

Include new product development which refreshes the category and drives incremental sales

Know your customer: if they ask about a particular product, especially advertised ones, stock them

Ensure the fixture is well maintained, fully stocked and easy to shop

Block the big brand ranges together

Take out slow sellers that tie up money and space.

Source: UBUK
retailer opinion
"Our cakes are selling especially well at the moment - the category has grown 8% year on year. We have a good variety of local suppliers including Stuart the Bakers, Kingdom Bakers and Tower Bakery. We also sell branded products, such as Mr Kipling cakes. Four-packs of Tower Bakery cakes are our best seller.

"With biscuits we sell economy Spar lines such as custard creams and bourbons and have a big range of McVitie's and Walkers shortbreads. We've really noticed a shift towards cheaper products lately, so we're actually discontinuing McVitie's ginger nuts in favour of Spar's."

John Mitchell, Spar, Ceres, Fife
Top five best-selling biscuits

Big break

In the UK alone Nestlé sold one billion KitKats last year. While two- and four-fingers are the recognised UK formats, a three-finger KitKat is available in the Middle East.

rrp: two-finger 24p; four-finger 40p

tel: 0845 603 1979

A good all-rounder

More than 71 million packets of McVitie's Chocolate Digestives are eaten in the UK each year - that's 52 biscuits munched per second. But, amazingly, less than half of all impulse outlets stock them.

rrp: £1.42

tel: 0800 138 0813

Shaping up well

As a low-calorie snack, Kellogg's Special K bars are popular with health-conscious consumers. The Special K Original Bar is a cereal bar with fruit pieces topped with a smooth, yogurt drizzle.

rrp: 45p

tel: 0870 240 2393

Easy to swallow

Invented by McVitie's in 1892, digestives were

so-called as it was thought that the baking soda in them aided digestion. More than 100 years later and this biscuit is still a firm favourite.

rrp: 85p

tel: 0800 138 0813

Slam dunk

Chocolate HobNobs are another winner from McVitie's. Famed for their excellent tea-dunking characteristics, comedian Peter Kay refers to HobNobs as 'The marines of the biscuit world'.

rrp: £1.85

tel: 0800 138 0813