The versatility, affordability and long shelf life of canned food has boosted savoury lines, but fruit remains in the doldrums

These are challenging times for canned food. With heavy promotions making fresh food more attractive than ever and soaring raw material costs, manufacturers are having to work harder to keep cans in the public’s baskets.

An industry that prides itself on being affordable has also had to contend with asking retailers for significant price hikes over the past year, as a result of the rising  cost of both tin plate and key ingredients such as tomato paste and beans.

Nevertheless the picture is not all negative, according to Steve Thomas, chairman of Canned Food UK. “Consumers are switching on to the fact cans have a long shelf life and can help reduce food waste,” he says. “Canned food can also be a healthy choice.”

It’s certainly been a successful year for Princes Foods, which has seen impressive sales gains in key brands and scored one of the biggest wins of 2009 by overtaking rival John West to become the number one line in the ambient fish category.

Distribution gains, promotions and substantial investment in above-the-line activity through its Food and Drink To Be Simply Enjoyed campaign helped boost sales, says Ruth Simpson, Princes marketing director for imported food. “It’s the perfect category in recessionary times,” she claims. “People see it as value for money and a good product to have at home.”

Princes also unveiled the first tuna product in a carton – Tuna Bites – in November this year. This was the brand’s most recent foray into non-canned ambient fish. Both Princes and rival John West have previously unveiled premium fish fillets in pouches,  a format they claim is well suited to the irregular shape of tuna fillets and also has more premium cues.   

Heinz has also tried out new ambient formats, with its Snap Pots of beans and  now spaghetti. Heinz’s imperious lead at the top of the category remains unchallenged. The market leader posted healthy 11.2% growth, taking it through the £200m barrier for the first time as sales hit £217.2m. Overall baked bean volume sales slipped slightly, but these figures do not include Snap Pots, and Heinz says it has made good recent gains in canned over the last quarter.

Nor is Heinz taking its market leadership for granted, says marketing manager John Alderman. “The market environment has changed and we’ve had to be more active with our trade promotions,” he explains. “We reintroduced the Beanz Meanz Heinz message, reduced the salt and sugar levels in Snap Pots, and increased penetration as a result.”

The newly launched £5m It Has To Be Heinz campaign – the brand’s biggest spend in the last five years – will boost sales right across the portfolio, Alderman says. It could provide a particularly useful fillip in canned pasta, where Heinz, which has a virtual monopoly on branded sales, only recorded 1.5% sales growth in the past year.

In beans and pasta only Branston has any real branded presence behind Heinz, and it has been a good year for the Premier Foods product, with its credentials as a cheaper baked bean brand helping sales rise 21.6% to £34.4m over the year.

In the canned vegetable sector Napolina massively increased its lead over Green Giant and has now put clear daylight between itself and its General Mills-owned rival thanks to 41.7% growth.

While much of the sub-category’s overall growth was due to input cost increases, Napolina also bolstered its portfolio by launching into beans and pulses in June. And there are plans to double the £120m value of the total brand, which includes pasta and sauces, in the next three to five years, according to marketing director Remmelt Jongkind.

“We’ve improved distribution by going back to basics with all our customers, while at the same time driving value for consumers through our products.”

Volume sales of tomatoes have risen 8.3% in the past three months, he claims, with the Bursting with Real Napolina Passion press campaign helping raise awareness.

Elsewhere it’s been another wretched year for canned fruit, with sales volumes plummeting by 12.2%. Neither branded nor own-label segments made much headway, with only the smallest brands having anything positive to shout about. The introduction of many value lines on fresh fruit have made it a more appealing option than canned, analysts say, particularly when combined with the price increases on tins. 

The picture for the overall category is mixed. Perhaps the future lies in more advertising. A canned campaign this year fronted by celebrity chef James Martin and nutritionist Amanda Ursell stressing the benefits of tinned food, notched up the highest level of media coverage of any Canned Food UK initiative to date.

With further promotion planned for 2010, producers are still confident there is plenty of life in tins yet.

Top launch: No-drain Tuna, John West
Princes might have claimed the upper hand in terms of sales this year, but John West gets the plaudits for best innovation with its No Drain Less Mess tuna, which removes the hassle of draining oil or brine from the can. A revolution in canning, No Drain Tuna has already grabbed itself a 5.1% share of the market and the company believes the product has the potential to bring tens of millions of pounds of extra revenue to the category.

Top Products Survey 2009