The debate over where best to place free-from food & drink within the aisles of the nation’s leading retailers was raging long before sales of such items passed the £500m mark for the first time in 2015.
Producers like ourselves argued our products were hard to find in stores under a catch-all ‘free-from’ descriptor that didn’t do credit to our own fast-rising status, particularly as the number of shoppers regularly buying our products for taste and lifestyle reasons quickly outweighed the numbers purchasing for needs-based health reasons alone.
Slowly, but surely, we won the argument as rising sales provided a compelling argument for our products to be placed alongside more ‘mainstream’ alternatives.
Another of our crusades has been to lobby against the catch-all ‘free-from’ term, which we never felt particularly accurately describes or allows for the complexities within the wider category. For example, ‘plant-based’ - a term we coined and one of the fastest growing areas in food and drink - has become familiar and reassuring to millions of shoppers who regularly seek out products they know will deliver on taste, health and sustainability.
The term has now firmly entered into common parlance, and is frequently cited by the great and good of the food & drink world (Jamie Oliver and Yotam Ottolenghi, among many).
However, like all brand owners, we can ill afford to be complacent and where products like ours should now be merchandised to sustain impressive growth is the conundrum that faces all leading retailers.
With free-from sales fast approaching the £1bn mark and value soaring by 26.7% year on year on volumes up 19.5%, we may finally have our answer.
Alongside other leading suppliers, we have been working closely with Tesco on the trial of a new dedicated dairy alternatives chilled fixture within the mainstream chiller aisles, which we believe could redefine this particular area of free-from for good - or at least for a new generation of free-from shoppers.
As part of an overhaul of its wider free-from offer, Tesco’s concept is simple - give shoppers what they want by making the products they want easy for them to find. Already yielding positive results in trials, the dairy alternatives concept is now being rolled out to Tesco stores nationwide and could soon become the blueprint for a new generation of dairy alternatives fixtures for other retailers.
We welcome this move, but the ongoing challenge for us is to work with our customers and show them this category needs more breathing space to meet shopper demand. Increased in-store visibility is vital if dairy alternatives are to continue their rapid growth and develop into a mainstream purchase that is part of an everyday holistic approach to health and wellbeing. And, to be successful, this will mean increased space on shelf, increased product choice and clear in-store signposting. The food & drink industry has a societal obligation to make healthy tasting choices more widely available.
Sue Garfitt is commercial director, Alpro UK & Ireland