There are close to three million Muslims in the UK and on 18 June the vast majority of them will begin observing the 30-day period of Ramadan, fasting during daylight hours and eating a large family meal in the evening.
With suppliers expecting tenfold volume hikes on key lines and the big four already offering promotions through dedicated Ramadan sections on their websites, there is a clear and recognised retail opportunity (although the shifting timing of the event makes it tricky to compare sales figures year on year).
But there are also challenges, with suppliers fighting mainstream products for space in store, and some raising questions over whether the major retailers have got their Ramadan strategies right.
From a retailing and logistics standpoint, Ramadan can be compared with other seasonal events. While it lasts for an entire month, it can be austere by Western standards (unlike Christmas there is little present giving, for example), but it offers the chance to boost food and drink sales and engage with Muslim shoppers.
“Mainstream retailers and distributors are increasingly aware of the potential in the halal market,” says Faruk Vali, MD at KQF, which manufactures halal food as well as retailing online and through a store in Blackburn.
The range of retailers tapping Ramadan is increasing, with smaller chains and symbol groups this year showing greater interest than ever, say suppliers. “The multiples and wholesalers take Ramadan seriously as they realise it can mean serious volume increases and the opportunities to introduce new lines,” says Mike Baldrey, sales director at oils and ethnic food supplier KTC. “We are used to doing it, but sometimes it can seem a bit scary in logistical terms,” he adds.
Yet although Ramadan has become an opportunity for retailers to demonstrate their readiness to cater for Muslim consumers, that doesn’t mean they always get ranging or merchandising spot-on.
“Some retailers - even fairly big ones - have yet to develop a clear understanding of family routines during Ramadan: what sort of meals are eaten at what times of the day, and how and when food is prepared,” Vali says. “They may devote more PoS to promoting their standard halal stock but still don’t markedly change their ranges, and in very few cases do they alter the layout of their retail space.”
Retailers and suppliers must also be wary of the effect the timing of Ramadan can have on purchasing habits.
“A few years ago, Ramadan was in winter and Muslims would break the fast at 5pm and possibly have two meals,” says Harry Dulai, MD of distributor Surya Foods. “This year with sunset at 9pm they are lucky to have one.”
Specialist stores that are more tied to local Muslim communities have an opportunity to benefit from their expertise. This may include reducing emphasis on snacks and impulse buys - as sales drop off during fasting - and emphasising family dining. They will be aware traditional Muslims may plan and prepare meals in advance - and seek ingredients such as pastry and mincemeat - while younger consumers are more likely to opt for convenience foods.
“Some families will buy a bulk order of meat and portion it out before freezing so a new pack can be taken out and prepared each day,” says Vali. “As a manufacturer, we prepare for Ramadan by shifting production more towards those used in larger family meals.”
Conversely, halal brand Ieat is tapping demand for convenience with its microwavable ready meals. But a halal audience may have concerns about prepared food, warns founder Shazia Saleem.
“The quality of halal prepared foods in supermarkets has historically been poor, and overcoming negative perception of such foods among the Muslim community is a key challenge for us.”
Ieat has expanded its line-up for Ramadan and is running 2-for-£5 offers and sampling in the run-up. Other brands are ramping up marketing, with Barr backing Rubicon with digital and TV ads on ethnic channels. Surya Foods is embarking on its biggest-ever marketing campaign, supporting Laila basmati with £1m of activity, and targeting younger Muslims by promoting a free Ramadan smartphone app with features including notifications of the suhoor and iftar feast times. Surya is also widening its range this year with dishes from Turkey, Malaysia and Thailand.
In terms of retailer promotions, larger formats - such as the five-litre bottles of oil and 5kg packs of rice currently on a 2-for-£8 offer in Tesco are popular. Larger pack formats are important to Ramadan shoppers buying for family gatherings, say suppliers, and AG Barr is running 2-for-£2 offers on one-litre Rubicon drinks and launching £1 PMPs of Sun Exotic drinks.
Marketing and innovation have important roles to play in expanding the market, say industry observers, with growth slowing as Ramadan has become an established part of the grocery calendar.
Wider pressures on the grocery industry have made it harder to gain space in stores, says Dulai. “We can’t just pop up displays as we used to,” he adds. Concerns around space are echoed by Tilda marketing head Anna Beheshti, who says this can particularly be an issue when Ramadan coincides with other festivals or themes.
The thought of managing both Christmas and Ramadan in store at the same time is a daunting one. But with them not coinciding until around 2030, the trade has some time to get its plans straight.
What is Ramadan?
- Ninth month of the Islamic calendar, runs for 30 days
- Islamic calendar is lunar, so start of Ramadan moves 11 days earlier each year
- Starts on 18 June this year
- Muslims fast during daylight hours, which is intended to teach self-discipline, self-restraint and generosity
- Muslims eat the suhoor meal before sunrise and the iftar meal after sunset, often shared with family
- End of Ramadan is marked by the Eid-ul-Fitr festival that includes a celebratory meal