This is the original version of an article published in Speciality Food Magazine, June 2013 edition.
Figures and poll results from Mintel’s Head of Food, Drink and Foodservice Research, Kiti Soininen
Although financial austerity has hit hard, consumers have not abandoned snacking and the snack sector as a whole demonstrated an upward trend in 2012. Nevertheless, while sales of sweet and savoury biscuits and crackers rose by 2% in 2012 to £2.2billion, there was a 2% decline in volume sales, due in part to higher grocery prices and inflation in basic ingredients, such as wheat. However, while sweet biscuits, representing 80% of the market value, grew just 0.9% in 2012 with an almost 2% dip in volume sales, the savoury sector grew nearly 13% in value and 6% in volume, boosted by new product development (NPD).
The findings for sweet biscuits suggest that consumers may be buying smaller portions and cutting back on more expensive options, including seasonal selections. Indeed, everyday biscuits now constitute 25% of value and 41% of volume sales, an increase of 20% within two years, implying that economy ranges and traditional low-priced favourites are showing relative gains from the current economic climate. While sweet biscuit purchases peak among 25-54 year-olds, savoury biscuit consumption is highest among the over 45s. This reflects the widespread appeal of sweet snacks, including the enduring popularity among younger and older adults of having sweet, rather than savoury biscuits with a hot drink. Also many people over 45 years old have greater disposable income and thus may be more attracted to artisan products, including good quality savoury biscuits.
As the above figures show, sales of savoury biscuits and crackers would appear to be growing faster than sales of sweet and one family company that has seen rapid success is Cradoc’s Savoury Biscuits based in Brecon, Wales. Set up by former ceramics and giftware business owner, Allie Thomas, they received support from the Welsh Government’s ‘Wales the True Taste’ food & drink mentoring programme. She explains: "Within the sweet biscuit category, I saw plenty of choice and differentiation between proprietary brands, but no real savoury biscuit snack counterparts, especially ones suitable for use with tea or on a cheeseboard. Indeed, I was disappointed by the biscuits available to go with cheese, feeling that they often lacked panache and individuality". She believed that there had to be room for an alternative, which relied on the quality of ingredients, using less fat and salt. As a result, after four years’ hard work perfecting the biscuit flavours, she launched her artisan company last September with her husband and daughter, first selling at farmers’ market and food festivals, before approaching the trade. Since then, the business has gone from strength to strength. The products are now available more widely in the UK through an independent wholefood distributor, feature at certain higher-end retail stores and are also sold in an increasing number of European and US outlets.
Flavour and quality of the raw ingredients are major factors in the company’s success: "We use fresh vegetables, fruit, herbs and spices whenever possible, no preservatives or artificial additives and have received such a great response that we will need a new baker in future to expand our business". Cradoc’s have two ranges of savoury biscuits - vegetable crackers, with flavour combinations such as ‘Beetroot and Garlic’ and a new cocktail biscuit range, drawing on local influences, including ‘Leek and Caerphilly Cheese’ and ‘Walnut and Perl Las Cheese’. However, despite the development of original and innovative flavours, Allie’s largest investment has been in the packaging. For her, labelling must be "direct, clean, simple and designed for all, without necessarily listing all the benefits and becoming too cluttered". The importance of product-specific packaging is reiterated by Louisa Mayor of Farmhouse Biscuits, a family-run business which has been baking biscuits for over 50 years. "We took the decision last year to dip our toe into the savoury market. We were launching something completely unassociated with Farmhouse Biscuits, so we knew that the packaging had to be right. For us it was time to create a new brand identity and bring all our ranges together. The new colourful packs with a brief description of the Farmhouse family history seem to have worked. We feel that consumers want to identify and relate to the people who are creating their food and want to trust the brand".
Distinctive packaging can also be geared towards certain markets, as Frank’s Luxury Biscuits have found. For them, it was important not to make their packaging too glossy, to differentiate their biscuits from supermarket ranges. Consequently, they use a matt finish on their boxes, which also have an aperture so the consumer can see what they are buying. The company places an emphasis on clear labelling, appropriate sizing and recyclable packaging, which is targeted towards specific retail environments. Therefore, their ‘Oaties’ range uses cellophane bags for a more rustic look which appeals particularly to farm shops, while their ‘Butter Bites’ are packaged in boxes, more suitable for delicatessens and export markets, such as Denmark. Additionally, despite the recession, sales have not suffered and Frank’s ‘Mini-Bites’ have proved very popular, offering the consumer smaller-sized options in both boxes and bags at a lower price. Louisa Mayor of Farmhouse Biscuits offers a further insight: "We have always found that recessions never really affect the consumers’ appetite for biscuits and they always seem to enjoy good quality. However, although comfort food will always be required, it is essential not to go over certain price points, as there is a limit to what a consumer will pay".
These three companies make extensive use of dual flavour combinations, reflecting a key trend in both savoury and sweet products. However, Lesley Cornthwaite, joint owner of Frank’s accepts that, although consumers are always searching for new products, especially with regards to flavour, certain traditional favourites are consistently among the biggest sellers, such as chocolate and ginger-based biscuits. Nevertheless, demographic factors can also affect sales, irrespective of national trends. For example, Lawson’s Delicatessen in Aldeburgh report seasonal and age-related influences, including the preference among the elderly population for sweet biscuits to go with tea and the benefit of school holidays for increasing retail sales. This is not surprising as retired consumers and households with young children are big purchasers of sweet biscuits. Furthermore, since the over-65s are expected to show the fastest population increase over the next few years, sales may benefit as a result.
Among their quality artisan produce, Lawson’s are particularly well known for their cheese selection, which is a major reason why they experience greater sales and profits with savoury biscuits compared to sweet. Although they do not specifically offer cheese and biscuit pairings, they find it easy to cross-sell these products and they are not the only company to take advantage of this scenario. For example, Frank’s sell savoury biscuits to hamper companies and Cradoc’s collaborate with cheesemakers at farmers’ markets and are due to feature at the Ludlow Food Centre with local cheese promotions.
Alasdair Maclean, General Manager of award-winning Stag Bakeries, gives his opinion. "Speciality food consumers are generally adventurous and value being guided on the cheese characteristics that work best with a particular biscuit. In fact, some of our customers are cheese specialists, so when we launch our new brand design, we will be approaching them for advice on pairings. However, with international markets, consumers may not be aware of specific British cheeses nor have access to them, so guidance on texture and flavour helps them explore what works best".
Attitudes to healthy eating are also influencing consumers’ biscuit purchases and an increase in health claims for savoury biscuits in 2012 may be one of the reasons why the savoury biscuit category grew faster than the sweet. Indeed, while just over half of sweet biscuit consumers polled are influenced by health concerns and 19% prefer natural ingredients, only 6% of sweet biscuit sales in 2012 fell within the healthier biscuit category. Nevertheless, this last statistic does represent a 5% rise over 2010’s figures and there is clearly an underlying trend for healthier eating in general, buoyed on recently by the horsemeat scandal and greater awareness of food intolerances. In fact, with crackers and crispbreads dominating the savoury market, one poll showed 29% of sweet or savoury biscuit users choosing these as a healthy alternative to bread. Other findings showed 50% of users wanting to see more sweet biscuits with added health benefits, such as Omega 3 and greater fibre content. Additionally, 31% would like to see more biscuits containing glucose or similar energy-giving properties. Sally Day, Sales Manager of Lovemore Free From Foods, also sees a growing market, particularly for gluten-free products. She explains: "Since the taste and texture of gluten and wheat-free foods have improved so much over the last five years, more people are now searching these out as a general wellbeing and lifestyle choice, rather than just for specific health issues, such as coeliac disease".
Despite the recession, there are reasons for optimism in the biscuit market. Price is a key issue, as evidenced by the relative success of everyday biscuits and there is greater scope for economy lines to steal market share through smaller pack sizes and lower prices. There is also potential for biscuits to compete more aggressively with other sweet and salty products in the snacks sector. Demographic variations within the UK and seasonal factors should also be considered and packaging styles targeted for particular retail environments may further benefit sales. However, the main conclusion to be drawn is that NPD is crucial for success, capitalising on current trends, including consumers’ desire for affordable, healthier and natural products with original flavour combinations and local provenance. Cross-category promotions and business collaborations may also help drive forward growth in the market, but the underlying product must have sufficient appeal in its own right to attract sales. As Louisa Mayor of Farmhouse Biscuits says: "You need to make sure that the consumer is drawn to your product above all others and then you need to have the confidence to know that once tasted the consumer will come back for more".