Any convenience retailer who believes the vegetarian category appeals to such a minority that it's not worth stocking should think again. Health has become one of the key drivers of vegetarian foods and that means an estimated 45% of households are reducing their meat intake, giving the category a much wider appeal.
The proportion of vegetarian households is just under 6% of the population, according to TGI data, and while there has been a slight fall in the number of bona fide vegetarians in recent years, especially among men, it is the number of meat 'avoiders' or 'reducers' that is driving the market.
Although it is hard to put an exact number on this group, according to Mintel's Meat-free Foods report published in December 2004, 45% of households are reducing their meat intake. According to the report, there are various reasons for being a vegetarian, including animal rights, ethics of food production, religious reasons and health. But the report points out that as the consumer base has shifted from vegetarians to meat reducers, it has become clear that health is a key factor in the market.
The report continues: "A vegetarian diet has been perceived as healthy, as long as a balanced diet is eaten. However, now the emphasis is more upon demonstrating the healthiness of particular foods or ingredients."
Ready and willing
While the meat-free food market is worth £658m and is growing steadily by 4.3% year on year, according to TNS data from the year ending January 2006, convenience retailers aren't doing enough to attract shoppers looking for meat-free products.
Stephen Bolton, commercial director at Premier Foods - which purchased the Quorn brand from Marlow Foods in June last year - says: "Convenience stores aren't offering consumers enough breadth of choice in meat-free products. Research has revealed that 70% of meat-free food is consumed by non-vegetarians or healthy eaters, representing a tremendous opportunity for retailers to drive new sales.
"The opportunity for the convenience retail channel with Quorn is really at the start of its life cycle, so the best sales opportunity will come from stocking the Quorn core four - mince, pieces, sausages and burgers," says Bolton. "These are the products best suited to the convenience and impulse sectors and offer both vegetarians and healthy eaters a real alternative to meat products.
"With more than 4.4 million UK households purchasing Quorn in 2005, it is essential that convenience outlets tap into the profit opportunities available to them," adds Bolton. "According to TNS research, 63% of UK households (15.4 million) claim to be trying to eat more healthily - this represents a huge opportunity for the brand and retailer alike."
The health factor
Tofu is showing strong growth in the vegetarian sector, led by Cauldron, the UK's main tofu manufacturer, which produces around 91% of the tofu sold in this country, according to TNS. Cauldron brand manager Rafi Arkin says: "People have developed an understanding of the many health benefits of eating tofu as an everyday ingredient.
"This natural food has gained popularity with celebrities and those concerned about leading healthy lifestyles, and consequently it's rapidly becoming a shopping list essential. Its versatility means it can be the main component or a subsidiary ingredient of savoury meals or sweet dishes.
"True vegetarians still account for more than 5% of the population but the opportunity is in offering appealing and imaginative convenience foods for almost half of the population who want to eat less meat. More mainstream consumers are buying a vegetarian option once or twice a week and are comfortable with an alternative format with which they are familiar, such as sausages or burgers."
According to Mintel research undertaken in August/September 2004, vegetarian sausages are the most popular type of meat-free food, purchased by 15% of respondents in the three months preceding the survey, followed by vegetarian burgers and vegetarian lasagne or pasta. About 10% of consumers bought Quorn, vegetable grills and vegetable curry.
"Women are more likely than men to buy these products, and there is a clear upmarket bias to purchasing," claims Mintel. "However, a broad range of age groups from 15 to 54 purchase vegetarian products, with only older people buying much less than the average."
When consumers were asked for their main reason for purchasing meat-free food, it is perhaps unsurprising that 12% highlighted health as a key factor, according to MF Research with Catalyst. However, enjoyment of meat-free dishes also played a part, as did the element of practicality, both having a significant influence on driving consumers' purchasing decisions (FFP Annual May 2004)

National Vegetarian Week

Retailers are being encouraged to get involved with the 14th National Vegetarian Week (NVW) being held from May 22-28. C-stores can support the event and in turn raise awareness of their vegetarian product ranges, by following these simple ideas:
- Use the NVW logo to show your vegetarian customers that you take their needs seriously
- Display NVW posters to highlight the event and any special offers or activity you may be running
- Display NVW postcards at the point of sale to promote free resources for your customers
- Run promotions on vegetarian products
- Profile vegetarian products and recipes through sampling and displays.
To lay your hands on NVW posters and promotional material, contact business liaison officer Matt Parkinson on 0161 925 2030.

Fresh versus frozen

The chilled sector dominates in the meat-free category, with £482.8m of total sales. "Chilled products are outperforming frozen in all segments of the convenience food market, so the underlying dynamics in the meat-free market are very much in tune with wider trends," says Mintel's December 2004 Meat-free Foods report.
"The chilled sector of the market is dominated by own label, and Quorn is the leading branded range with a 9% share at the end of 2004. Vegetarian specialist Cauldron Foods is the other brand of significance, with a 4% share."
The frozen sector is more heavily branded, with own label taking a share approaching 30%, adds Mintel.
Quorn is the leading frozen brand, with Heinz's Linda McCartney brand also strong in this sector.