It’s been another rollercoaster year in grocery, and a historic one, with the highest inflation in decades. But amid casualties and controversy, there were also triumphs and moments of levity. So, as the year draws to a close, join us as we celebrate the good, the bad, the peculiar and the hilarious in The Grocer’s review of the year

Villain of the Year: Ultra-processed foods

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Dr Chris van Tulleken’s book Ultra-Processed People shone a light on the issue

Move over sugar, there’s a new villain in town. Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) came under the microscope of the health lobby this year, fuelled by a high-profile book launch from TV doctor Chris van Tulleken. In Ultra Processed People, he took aim at “pre-chewed” and “embalmed” food that was not really food at all – rather “an industrially produced edible substance”.

He outlined the impact on our bodies, our health, our weight and the planet (as the book blurb sums up, “nothing good”). While stopping short of fully blaming UPFs for the obesity crisis, van Tulleken was clear they had become an unhealthy addiction. Backed by a heavyweight PR offensive, he earned reams of column inches in the papers – as well as high-profile appearances on radio and TV.

The health debate has raged on throughout the year. Several research papers have pointed to the adverse effects of UPFs. Meanwhile, some have called for a more nuanced argument. The Modern Baker’s Leo Campbell argues UPFs can be healthy when done in the right way, while the FDF has contended some degree of processing is vital to maintaining our food system.

Still, there’s no doubt UPFs have established themselves as a villain in the public consciousness. Certain categories are particularly at risk from the fallout. Mass-produced bread has been cited as the most ubiquitous UPF in our diets, but the term spans crisps, sausages, ice cream and much more. Some foods previously seen as healthy also fall under the definition. In its webpage on the subject, the British Heart Foundation points out plant-based meat and cheese substitutes “are also ultra-processed, and so might not be as healthy as they are marketed to be”.

In his last piece of the year, The Grocer columnist Warren Ackerman named concerns around UPFs as a significant threat to fmcg giants. So don’t expect this debate to die down any time soon.

WTF of the Year: The British Mystery Meat


Gregg Wallace was seen eagerly extolling eating human flesh

Who knew the perma-cheery Gregg Wallace could do satire to rival the likes of Jonathan Swift? In July, the go-to guy for light entertainment fronted a pre-watershed food documentary on Channel 4 that was reminiscent of an Inside the Factory episode. So far, so innocuous. However, it soon became apparent that Wallace was not scoping out how malt loaf is made, or why chocolate is so chocolatey. Instead, he was eagerly extolling eating human flesh as a solution to the cost of living crisis.

Set in the secret Lincolnshire factory of ‘Good Harvest’, viewers were shown how people could donate just a pound or two of their flesh, in return for money to help heat their home or deal with a damp problem. That flesh would then be grown into cheap cuts of meat. Many viewers, and many newspapers, were fooled. Social media went into battle mode and tabloid headline writers had a field day. But the joke was on them. 

The British Mystery Meat was a meticulous parody of that familiar type of frothy, superficial documentary we’re all guilty of mindlessly gorging on. It also successfully skewered a political climate in which poverty is increasing, yet the burden of responsibility is put on the individual. 

That it did so while serving up Wallace’s claim that human flesh “may well be the meaty miracle we need” was either state-of-the-nation comedic genius or an unnecessary, depraved joke – depending on who you talk to.


Scandal of the Year: Vaping 

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Disposable vapes became the centre of a scandal in February

Critical headlines about vapes are nothing new. But in February, disposable vapes became the centre of a scandal that topped any previous coverage. A Daily Mail investigation revealed products containing 50% more than the legal limit of liquid nicotine were being sold in major supermarkets, leading to several lines being pulled temporarily.

Among the culprits was Chinese titan ElfBar, the fastest-growing grocery brand of last year. It said e-liquid tanks of a size designed for other markets had been “inadvertently fitted” to some UK products.

But it was far from the only offender. The likes of SKE Crystal, Smok Mbar, IVG, Found Mary, Klik Klak, Solo and Solo+ were also found to contain nicotine juice volumes that far exceeded the legally permitted 2ml in independent testing by tobacco giant BAT.

Perhaps an even bigger scandal was how quickly the findings were brushed over. Critics lashed out at an impotent regulator and under-resourced enforcement.

“What’s been proven is you can do whatever you like and there will be little consequence. Apart from a few news articles, nothing’s going to happen to you. They’re all back on shelves. Why have these guys been allowed to abuse the law?” one industry source said. “It’s a piss-take. They’ve got away with murder.”

One source even argued the media coverage served as a “huge advert” for non-compliant brands, which offered a bigger nicotine hit than those following the rules. 

Either way, it certainly doesn’t seem to have hurt sales.  Vaping is grocery’s fastest-growing category again this year, having broken through the billion-pound barrier.

Deal of the Year: Mars buying Hotel Chocolat

Hotel Chocolat Store

A key aim is to boost the speed of Hotel Chocolat’s somewhat fraught international rollout

Here’s a deal that could truly deliver scale. In November, US confectionery giant Mars acquired Hotel Chocolat for £543m.  The landmark deal was not just a boon for founders Angus Thirlwell and Peter Harris, who pocketed a cool £244m, but a show of faith in fine British chocolate.

A key aim is to boost the speed of Hotel Chocolat’s somewhat fraught international rollout. The US conglomerate plans to use its international footprint, global supply chain and extensive commercial relationships to underpin global growth of the brand.

That might is more than welcome after Hotel Chocolat was forced to scale back international growth in 2022, following weaker-than-expected financial results and a collapse in share prices. At the time, the brand announced it would shutter US stores and scale back investment in both the US and Japan. Hotel Chocolat said the “scale of the challenge” involved in growing the brand internationally required funding at a level that was “likely to exceed that available from its own resources”.

That funding is now available, courtesy of the bank of Mars. It looks like CEO Thirlwell’s dream to become a “leading premium chocolate brand in major markets” is now well on its way to becoming a reality.


Epic Fail of the Year: DRS 

drs deposit return scheme plastic bottle recycling

Source: Getty Images

Scotland canned the third proposed launch date for its DRS

There was no shortage of nominations for Epic Fail of the Year in 2023. Most of those came courtesy of the Scottish and UK governments, which both suffered disasters in launching flagship environmental policies.

The main question was which policy u-turn, delay or failure to choose. Was it the bungled handling and then delay of extended producer responsibility  (EPR)? Or the fiasco over consistent recycling?

In the end, the award had to go to the failure to launch the deposit return scheme (DRS) north of the border. In June, Scotland canned the third proposed launch date  for its DRS, which was supposed to act as a template for the rest of the UK. Despite all the politics and posturing, Scotland will now fall in line with the proposed UK-wide rollout in October 2025.

The whole sorry saga has put the Scottish government at war with Westminster and virtually every sector of industry at various points, and SNP candidates have even used the issue in their internal leadership battles.

Many believe even the revised 2025 start date is a pipe dream. And certainly the omnishambles at Defra  doesn’t inspire much confidence in the likelihood of a timely, cohesive UK-wide scheme. Yet the latest recycling figures show DRS – a success story in so many other countries  – is needed more than ever.


Hero of the Year: Jenny Whyte

Not all heroes wear capes, as they say – but some do wear Tesco uniforms. In October, Tesco worker Jenny Whyte started a petition calling for abuse or violence towards retail workers to become a standalone criminal offence. The petition stemmed from her experience working in Tesco convenience stores in northern England – an experience backed by BRC figures recording 850 incidents of violence or abuse towards supermarket staff every day. 

Whyte soon secured the backing of Tesco’s UK CEO Jason Tarry, who said he was “fully behind” the petition. In a matter of days, it surpassed the 10,000-signature mark – the number that requires a government response – and the total number of signatories currently stands at just over 38,000.

In its initial response, the government said “we do not think more legislative change is required or will be most effective”. However, it was forced to acknowledge the rising tide of retail crime – illustrated by Co-op figures released in July, which showed incidents of shoplifting, antisocial behaviour and other retail crime were up 35% year on year to reach their “highest ever” levels.

Shortly afterwards, the government, police chiefs and retailers agreed on the rollout of a Retail Crime Action Plan, including the creation of a specialised police unit that would target organised crime gangs involved in shoplifting. The move was hailed as a potential game-changer in the fight against retail crime – and Whyte undoubtedly played her part.


Achievement of the Year: Sale of Yo Sushi/Snowfox for £495m

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Mayfair acquired Yo in 2015 for just £81m and transformed it into a multinational operation

As achievements go, selling sushi to the Japanese ranks on a par with selling ice to the Inuit. The $621m (£495m) sale of Yo Sushi owner The Snowfox Group  to Japanese foodservice group Zensho was not only a vote of confidence in the quality of the sushi specialist, but it also reflected the company’s transformation under CEO Richard Hodgson and owner Mayfair Equity Partners.

Mayfair acquired Yo in 2015 for just £81m and transformed it from a 70-restaurant, UK-only business into a multichannel, multinational operation, with over 3,000 sushi kiosks in UK, US and Canadian supermarkets, including 400 outlets in Tesco and Asda.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing. The damage to the hospitality sector during Covid resulted in a CVA to downsize the Yo Sushi owner’s UK restaurant arm in 2020. However, the near £500m sale is reflective of the huge strategic strides the business has made over the past five years – including the acquisition of Canada’s Bento in 2017US sushi group Snowfox in 2019  and UK-packed sushi supplier Taiko in 2018.

Hodgson and the Snowfox management team have pledged to stay on under the new owners as they continue their global growth push. If it’s good enough for the Japanese, who knows where their sushi could land next?


Car Crash of the Year: Rapid delivery


Getir auctioned dozens of bikes

The car crash of rapid delivery was less an instant collision, and more a slow-motion disaster that onlookers were powerless to stop. Having gained users and publicity during the pandemic, the cash-intense, premium model of rapid delivery was due a comedown as Covid restrictions dissipated and a cost of living crisis ensued.

Initially, that comedown was marked by a wave of consolidation in the rapid grocery market. However, that still hasn’t brought stability or security to the sector. Getir – one of the largest rapid delivery players – is struggling after its acquisition of rival Gorillas at the tail end of 2022. Earlier this year, it announced a “global restructuring” that involved letting go more than 10% of its workforce. 

The bombshell came after The Grocer revealed  Getir was auctioning off dozens of delivery bikes, chiller cabinets, delivery boxes and shelving to raise much-needed cash as it shuttered dark stores in the UK. The Grocer also heard from several suppliers that Getir was weeks behind on payments for stock, with some opting to put orders on hold until they were paid.

But the clearest signal of the company’s struggles came at the end of August, when Getir UK’s head of buying and commercial, Neil Franklin – one of its longest-serving employees – resigned and returned to Ocado. Several others have followed him out the door.

Rival Gopuff, meanwhile, continues to run attention-grabbing promotions  in a frantic bid for custom, while Zapp has pivoted its focus  from mass market to affluent Londoners. And all of the quick commerce players have listed  on major courier platforms like Deliveroo and Uber Eats, signalling there are limits to the volumes they can generate themselves. 

Crucially, none yet claim profitability. Meanwhile, the major mults are gaining ever more popularity – and speed  – with their own quick turnaround delivery services. Promises to deliver within 15 minutes are no longer such a compelling USP. The question is: will rapid delivery companies last any longer than their turnaround time?

Story of the Year: Greedflation


Source: Getty

As food price inflation hit historic highs, MPs, campaign groups and the media accused retailers of profiteering

The cost of living crisis has dominated this year’s news agenda, but an undercurrent involving accusations of “greedflation” has formed the main subplot.

So recently hailed as heroes of the pandemic, supermarkets and suppliers quickly became the pantomime villains as MPs on both sides of the house, campaign groups and even supermarkets and suppliers accused one another  of artificially ramping up profits on the back of the crisis.

Was the industry really profiteering from the soaring food prices?

In May, after repeated questioning from politicians and the media, and as The Grocer predicted, the Competition & Markets Authority duly obliged – not once but twice. After two major reports, however, and despite political intervention that went right up to No 10, the competition watchdog has failed to unearth any substantial evidence to make these claims stick.

The CMA’s probe into supermarket profiteering

The main result of the CMA’s taxpayer-funded investigations has been to prove the very opposite of what was claimed. It found that, in fact, the UK food industry is in fact hugely competitive – to the point where, far from inflating profit margins, the fall in margins is actually cause for concern.

The CMA’s intervention has also raised major questions over the role of the regulator, which has been accused of becoming a political puppet by some angry commentators. Indeed, despite having returned two reports already, the probe goes on.

Next year the CMA, having said it’s concerned that supermarket leaders want profits to increase as the economy recovers, has vowed to investigate further, while also probing supermarket loyalty schemes. The regulator’s new findings could even tackle suggestions from MPs that Aldi price match schemes from the likes of Tesco and Sainsbury’s have been keeping prices artificially high. More evidence, say many, that the CMA is more interested in conspiracy than competition. 


Scoop of the Year: Booths ditching self-service checkouts


A Grocer scoop about Booths stripping out self-checkouts went viral, with media as far afield as Australia and the US picking up on our story

The Grocer has broken countless scoops in the last year. But there was one that captured the imagination of the world’s media: the decision by Northern supermarket chain Booths to take the axe to the self-service checkouts in all but two of its 27 stores

Our story filled column inches in newspapers as far afield as Australia and the US, as well as appearing as the lead story on the BBC’s Friday evening news bulletin that week (not that The Grocer received the credit) and all the national media. 

“We’re not great fans of self-checkouts,” Booths managing director Nigel Murray told The Grocer during a tour of the regional supermarket’s Clitheroe store in November. Judging by the outpouring of conversation and debate that followed, many shoppers appear to agree.

Booths takes a stand for customer service

It’s not hard to see why it became such a talking point. For starters, the move runs counter to the phasing out of manned tills in favour of increased self-service machines in stores that has been such a feature of recent years. A trend that has caused customer service levels to fall, and even led to a campaign calling on Tesco to bring back more checkout operators. 

Like its bigger supermarket rivals, Booths initially began fitting the tech to cut staff costs and improve efficiency, Murray said.

However, bosses had a change of heart after realising that it detracted from the high-quality store experience on which the 176-year-old grocer has built its reputation. “We pride ourselves on great customer service,” Murray said. “You can’t do that through a robot.” 


Disaster of the Year: Wilko’s demise


High street retailer Wilko’s demise shows once again that being a discounter does not guarantee success in a cost of living crisis 

In the last crash Woolworths went under. This time it was Wilko. Explaining the demise of the family business to the Business & Trade Committee in November, former chair Lisa Wilkinson cited declining high street trade, high rents coupled with long leases on stores, the choice to stay open during pandemic lockdowns, and even the 2022 mini budget.

She also admitted to management mistakes, including a failure to maintain a clear customer proposition and offered an apology to former Wilko workers now facing Christmas without a job. And it wasn’t just jobs that were lost. With unpaid debts of £400m, trade creditors lost out to the tune of £157m, The Grocer revealed, with the biggest hits taken by Procter & Gamble (owed £8.9m) and Unilever (£3.2m). 

What went wrong at Wilko in 2023?

A clear customer proposition for its tried high street locations was arguably something Wilko lost well before the start of 2023, so the 93-year-old retailer’s collapse into administration in August  was perhaps more predictable than Wilkinson suggested.

That was certainly the assessment of Liam Byrne, chair of the committee. “This has been a sorry story we’ve heard today,” was his verdict. “We’ve had you, Miss Wilkinson, admitting to a number of significant management mistakes – around stock, around range, around furlough.

“We’ve heard about a £60m warehouse modernisation that went wrong, a £40m loss on financial derivatives, a process of restructuring rents that didn’t go through. We have at least had an apology.”

Byrne even accused Wilkinson of “burgling a failing business” when questioning her over £7.5m paid in dividends to shareholders between 2019 and 2022. 

All in all: an absolute disaster.


Turnaround of the Year: M&S

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M&S boss Stuart Machin has been described as a force of nature

If Wilko proved a cost of living crisis doesn’t guarantee success for a discounter, M&S showed that even a retailer at the more premium end of the market can do well with the right strategy and execution. Its turnaround under CEO Stuart Machin saw M&S win Grocer of the Year  for the first time in its history at The Grocer Gold Awards this summer, and in September it re-entered the FTSE 100 after a four-year absence.

The turnaround has been five years in the making. And it’s involved a whole host of actions: from improving price perception with its Remarksable Value campaign, to improving product specification, with another 1,000 lines undergoing quality upgrades this financial year. 

How did M&S make 2023 its year of success? 

“We’ve focused very much on bestsellers, so core basket, bestselling lines, not peripheral lines,” M&S Food MD Alex Freudmann told The Grocer. “We’ve upgraded our cream cakes, for example. If you slice through an M&S fresh cream Victoria sponge, you’ll see more cream than cake, which I think is entirely appropriate for an M&S cake. And we’ve seen volume growth on the back of those cake upgrades of 23%.”

The store renewal programme has also been transformative, creating an experiential food shopping environment while other retailers make compromises on in-store theatre.

The list of things M&S is doing well is lengthy, but a final mention has to go to its CEO Stuart Machin – winner of the 2023 Grocer Cup. A “force of nature”, Machin’s relentless pursuit of improvement, under his “positively dissatisfied” mantra, has been all consuming.


Launch of the Year: Liquid Death

Liquid Death range

Liquid Death played on the shock value of its name as well as using viral stunts to support its UK launch

Death isn’t exactly an easy sell in fmcg, but it certainly gets you noticed. That was the case with Liquid Death, a trendy water brand from the US that used the shock value of its name, together with its bold packaging, buzzy marketing, and viral stunts – including an “appeal” by PETU (People for the Ethical Treatment of the Undead) to support the survival of zombies by hydrating properly.

It’s a move straight out of the Prime Hydration and MrBeast playbook – and one that has allowed it to charge an incredible premium for what is essentially canned water. So far it seems to be working; Liquid Death made its first appearance on UK shores in April, and by October it was rolling into 700 Tesco stores nationwide, just weeks after securing its bricks and mortar debut in Co-op and Nisa. An impressive feat for a brand that was almost unheard of just 18 months ago.

Expect Liquid Death to crop up even more in the future – the brand has recently been announced as the headline sponsor of Download Festival and will again appear at Live Nation’s music events over the summer. CEO Mike Cessario has even indicated Liquid Death would be open to sourcing water in the UK in the future should thirst for its drinks continue to take on a life of its own.


Bare-faced Cheek Award: Tesco fulfilment row

Booker warehouse

Tesco’s attempt to charge suppliers for increased online deliveries and Booker wholesale sales got short shrift

Being a supplier in the grocery industry is not for the faint-hearted. And while Amazon’s recent threat to delist suppliers ruffled a few feathers, the biggest kerfuffle came in March when a letter from Tesco chief product officer, Ashwin Prasad, set out plans to start charging suppliers fees so they could begin sharing the costs of online fulfilment and use of its Booker wholesale arm.

The move flew in the face of its mega profits, but was also clearly in breach of GSCOP, giving suppliers just days before it wanted them to agree to the new, so-called “fulfilment fees”.

After The Grocer’s story, the smell of burning rubber from Tesco’s screeching u-turn could be detected miles from Welwyn. The supermarket giant told suppliers that, while it believed more support was fair, the move was voluntary and would not result in delists for suppliers if they told Tesco where to go. Which in the nicest possible way many did. 

The issue has gone quiet in recent months, after Grocery Code Adjudicator Mark White urged suppliers to come forward with evidence of Tesco’s threats to delist. But that doesn’t mean it will be dead forever, and few would be surprised if further requests don’t follow down the line, perhaps with a subtler approach.

“The bare-faced cheek of it still shocks me when I think about it today,” recalls The Retail Mind founder Ged Futter, and it’s a reminder, he says of just how important GSCOP is in protecting suppliers.


Spat of the Year: Thatchers vs Aldi

Thatchers_Cloudy Lemon Cider

Lawyers think Thatchers may be a bigger threat to Aldi than the Colin the Caterpillar challenge lodged by M&S 

Brands sometimes walk a fine line with Aldi, having to balance defending their identity and exercising diplomacy as a supplier to the UK’s fourth-biggest supermarket. Hence lookalike products are sometimes tolerated, or disputes are quietly settled out of court, so the law does not develop in a way that could be unfavourable to the discounter.

Things can get more interesting when Aldi steps on the toes of a brand it doesn’t stock, and whose commercial interest lies solely in the millions it spends arriving at how its product should look, and then marketing it, only to find that investment being piggybacked by a budget doppelgänger.

That, essentially, is Thatchers’ position and argument in a battle that reached trial at the High Court in November. Some IP lawyers say it could open the floodgates for more brands to take on the discounter and even stop it mimicking category leaders as a way of getting people to notice its products. However, given that’s Aldi’s modus operandi, it’s likely to continue exploring the boundaries until it finds them.

A judgment is expected early in 2024.


Celebrity Tie-up of the Year: Heinz & Ed Sheeran


The tie-up of the year was Tingly Ted, the unlikely collaboration between Ed Sheeran and the performing artist known as Heinz

Ed Sheeran is a hits machine. But does he have an fmcg hit on his hands? Condiments giant Heinz responded to growing appetite for spicier fare by teaming up with Ed Sheeran for a dedicated hot sauce brand. Tingly Ted’s raised a few eyebrows when it first hit Asda shelves in March, given the unlikeliness of the collaboration, but this was no flash in the pan: it was the result of two years of development, according to Heinz.

Indeed, the love-in between Heinz and Sheeran stretches back even further. The singer-songwriter has been giving Heinz free advertising for years, first by getting its Tomato Ketchup logo tattooed on his arm in 2012, then by choosing a lifetime’s supply of ketchup as his luxury item when he featured on Desert Island Discs in 2017.

Heinz capitalised on Sheeran’s fandom and love of its products

Heinz first recognised the opportunity to capitalise on Sheeran’s fandom in 2019, when it cast the Shape of You singer in an advert, launched limited-edition bottles of ‘Edchup’ and auctioned off collector’s edition bottles featuring his tattoo designs.

With ketchup volumes declining in recent years, and hot sauces making gains, it made sense for Heinz to bring Sheeran back for a trendier collaboration. Even Sheeran (somewhat conveniently) admitted “the older I’ve got, the more I love and need spice with every single meal”, adding that he “wanted to make a sauce that took the same pride of place as ketchup”.

The result was Tingly Ted’s, and it’s fared quite well, making £416.8k within its first six months, according to our Top Products Survey 2023. ­Watch out for extra listings next year. 


Diversification of the Year: vodka

HH Heinz X Absolut Vodka Fork Small

Both Heinz and Coca-Cola diversified into the ever-popular booze categories

Coca-Cola’s diversification away from fizzy drinks continues apace. After Innocent Drinks (2013) and Costa Coffee (2018), the latest purchase involves vodka. Coca-Cola’s Hellenic Bottling Company acquired the Finlandia vodka brand from a subsidiary of Brown-Forman for $220m (£172m) in June, and marks a further commitment to diversify into a “total beverage company” – signalling its further expansion into alcoholic drinks.

While CCHBC has not yet disclosed an NPD strategy for Finlandia, The Coca-Cola Company has this year unveiled two co-branded RTDs with big-name spirits. It launched Jack Daniel’s & Coke  with Brown Forman in March and is working with Pernod Ricard to develop an Absolut Vodka & Sprite for the UK market rolling out early 2024. 

Heinz is an Absolut beginner

And Coca-Cola isn’t the only fmcg giant to be partnering with Absolut. Heinz teamed up with the vodka brand to launch a limited-edition tomato vodka pasta sauce in March. It formed part of Heinz’s strategy to bring its “tomato expertise” into new categories, having debuted its range of tomato pasta sauces in 2022.

A tomato-based ingredients range followed in July “to give Heinz tomato lovers even more access to our finest tomatoes”. Perhaps a co-branded Absolut Bloody Mary will be next.


Social Media Meltdown of the Year: Lilt

Lilt 2

The loss of Lilt hit many fans hard in 2023. But did they actually drink it?

If there’s a lesson to be learnt from Coca-Cola Europacific Partners’ decision to axe struggling tropical soft drink Lilt, it’s “use it or lose it”.

Lilt, which has been folded into the company’s Fanta label, had been on the wane for years, bringing in a measly £15.6m compared with the £282m Fanta racked up in the year before the decision was taken [NIQ 52 w/e 10 September 2022]. But you wouldn’t know it based on the reaction on social media.

“Very sad to hear that the Zoomers are too woke for a bit of Lilt. I remember when we were a real country,” wrote one rather hyperbolic fan. “I don’t think I want to live in a world without Lilt in it,” bemoaned another.

A petition urging CCEP to reconsider was swiftly launched but failed to gain traction, as it became clear that people were far more interested in moaning about the demise of Lilt than actually saving it. In any case, the damage had already been done. Or, as TV presenter Richard Osman quipped: “There’s no use crying over spilt Lilt.”


Fallen Angel of the Year: Naked Wines and Meatless Farm (joint winners)

Meatless Farm Co Meaty March

Source: Meatless Farm

Meatless Farm spent lavishly on marketing to support its global ambitions

The ‘honours’ in this category were shared by two star brands that have come crashing down to earth this year.

The first is Naked Wines. Once described as “the Netflix of wine”, Naked was flying high during the peak of the pandemic, driven by the middle classes turning to DTC to get their wine fix, here and in the US. 

‘Angels’ (or members) who ‘invested’ in Naked Wines have been disappearing in their droves in recent months, with “high inflation, higher taxes on alcohol and falling disposable incomes” to blame, according to founder Rowan Gormley, although there’s no doubt it’s also suffered from a dropoff in online retail sales more generally. In its most recent trading update in September, Naked said it expected full-year revenues for 2024 to decline 8% to 12%. 

Meanwhile, shares have fallen off a cliff and at time of writing are swirling around 40p, down from a 2021 peak of 900p. Naked’s travails have cost CEO Nick Devlin his job, and the company has even warned if it can’t turn around its post-pandemic hangover it could go bust. 

Meatless Farm runs out of road

That’s the fate that met Meatless Farms, whose collapse in May was the most high-profile casualty of the plunge in plant-based sales this past year, with decline across both own label and branded sales as our Top Products Survey report  noted. 

After an underwhelming Veganuary this year it came as no surprise to see significant range rationalisation  in the major mults, as reported earlier this year, as well as notable exits from fmcg giants including Nestlé, which pulled its Garden Gourmet brand off the shelves  for a second time.

But while it was a victim of a wider move away from alt-meat, The Grocer’s investigation into the collapse of Meatless Farms also identified a number of management failings, including lavish expenditure on marketing to support its global ambitions.  

Ultimately Meatless Farms was rescued. But a terrible year for the category ended on a final bad note earlier this month as VBites, the UK’s biggest manufacturer of plant-based meat and cheese, called in administrators after founder Heather Mills, the ex-wife of Sir Paul McCartney, ran out of cash. Having previously acquired the stricken Plant & Bean out of administration in July it was the ultimate proof that scale was no protection against a category that shoppers had fallen out of love with. A period of further consolidation beckons in which only the most skilled operators, with the best propositions, are likely to prevail. 


Resignation of the Year: Sharon White calls time on JLP job 

Sharon White - New Chairman of the John Lewis Partnership

Sharon White will leave JLP before her 18-month notice period ends in February 2025

There was a sense of inevitability about Sharon White’s resignation  and her decision not to pursue a second term as chairman of the John Lewis Partnership. However, the timing of the announcement, on a Monday morning in October, still came as a surprise.

After all, it looked like the partnership was starting to make some positive progress. In May, White had survived  a make-or-break confidence vote, with JLP partners backing her plan to turn around the business.

That seemed vindicated by half-year results in September, which showed that sales had grown and losses had narrowed across the partnership – even if higher-than-expected inflation meant the timeline of the turnaround strategy would need to be extended by another two years to 2028, White warned. 

White’s departure gives JLP a second chance

Despite these improvements, however, White’s tenure, expected to end before her contract experires in the spring of 2025, is likely to be viewed as a disastrous period for the bellwether retailer. And while White can by no means be considered the only culpable party in a downturn in its fortunes that was long in the making, the opportunity to recruit a turnaround specialist gives JLP a rare second chance to reset the dial on its recovery plan.

White deserves respect and praise for her genuine efforts to turn the partnership around. And also some sympathy for the scale of the task she faced on her appallingly timed arrival at the start of the pandemic. But many agree that her strategy, which includes plans to build thousands of buy-to-let properties, has not focused enough on fixing the retail offering at the heart of both John Lewis and Waitrose.

As the search for a replacement gets underway, led by former Interbrand CEO Rita Clifton, there is already much speculation as to who will replace her. The succession plan is eagerly awaited.