Maybe it's the downturn. Maybe it's the weather. But Brits have been reaching for the biscuit barrel.

Overall volume has risen 1.1% compared with 0.2% growth last year and although this has been partly fuelled by heavy promotional activity on brands, which have taken a 3.4% bite out of value sales of own-label biscuits, the doom and gloom hanging over us in 2010 has had consumers opting to pick up indulgent, premium treats. And Burton's Foods' tie-up with Cadbury has been ideally positioned to capitalise on the trend.

This isn't to say that plain biscuits aren't paying dividends for United Biscuits. Market leader Digestives put on £7.2m of new sales, Jacob's Crackers grew by £5.4m, and McVitie's Rich Tea sales were up by £3.5m. But Burton's is turning its attention to the treats market.

"There's still about 30% of all volume going through plain biscuits. That's fine and they will always be important but, particularly in the recession, giving people more mini treats is quite a cheap way of consumers giving themselves a pat on the back if it's not all sunshine," says Burton's Foods category controller Jon Sandy. As a result, sales of the overall Cadbury biscuits brand excluding Cadbury Fingers have grown 26.3% to £37.1m. And the company says its new Caramel, Crunchie and Turkish Delight variants have clocked up £12.4m in retail sales since their launch in March this year.

The three new biscuit lines have a combined first-year sales target of £20m, and have been supported by £2.5m of advertising in 2010, says Sandy.

He adds that the wider Cadbury portfolio benefited from the poor weather conditions earlier in the year. "With the snow, people went mad for biscuits and we saw quite a big spike in sales in January." But the snowy success was offset later in the year by the arrival of the World Cup, which Sandy says worked against the biscuit category.

"A lot of the retailers were focusing on beer, crisps and snacks, rather than biscuits, so we saw a dip of about 2% to 3% of volume sales over the summer, which took growth out of the category," he adds.

Compared with Cadbury, Burton's Maryland biscuits have been left looking a little unloved, with a 4.1% fall in sales, but Sandy says the brand will be a key focus for NPD in the first quarter of next year.

Upcoming launches are also likely to make next summer another biscuit battle ground. However, innovation will be only half the battle for Burton's and its peers as they jostle over key occasions in a bid to boost market share. Underexploited opportunities such as school holidays, Easter, Halloween and even the established Christmas market will be crucial for additional uplifts, says Nielsen.

Sandy admits the market could be doing more to capitalise on some festivities. "We could still do more at Christmas around the biscuit tin and sharing as it complements confectionery nicely," he says. "Halloween has been massive this year for confectionery in store, but it's not really big for biscuits and we could do more around Halloween parties and sharing. It doesn't have to be about trick or treat it could be a more family-centric proposition."

While chocolate biscuits benefited from the economic gloom, growth from healthy biscuits confirmed that some shoppers want healthier indulgence. UB's Go Ahead! range, at third place in the biscuits category, has risen 9.6% in value to £61.3m, while sales of Ryvita Crispbreads have risen 3% to £31.3m and Quaker Snack-a-Jacks 2.4%.

A market that's ripe for growth is savoury biscuits. It will have a "significant opportunity" to piggyback the health trend next year, according to Nielsen, as companies look to move the scale of the UK biscuits category towards that seen in other markets such as the US and Australia. There, the sub-category accounts for about 45% of total biscuits, compared with 15% in the United Kingdom.

"There are many reasons for this differential," says Nielsen. "For example cultural or weather drivers. But this is not enough to negate the UK savoury opportunity". UB's number one cracker brand, Jacob's, appears to support this trend with strong growth, up 13.2% year-on-year, but insiders point to food giant Kraft, yet to break into the top 20 in biscuits in the UK, as an important market driver in 2011. The company scored a big hit with Mikado and has already made strides in the breakfast market with the launch of Belvita biscuits at the start of the year.

Own-label has plans of its own for savoury biscuits, says Sainsbury's biscuit buyer Sophie Hogg. The retailer's savoury Taste the Difference biscuits have achieved double-digit growth in the past 12 weeks and Hogg is confident this will be maintained as shoppers look for healthier alternatives.

"Savoury biscuits have been in strong growth over the past two years, and that has accelerated in recent months, so I have every confidence it will continue to drive future growth. I see growth coming from areas such as breadsticks, crispbreads and crackers, where the consumer can choose products that are not only lower in calories but are also nutritional," she says.

According to Nielsen, another key opportunity is linking hot drinks with biscuits as 65% of in-home biscuits occasions are enjoyed with a hot drink, but only 9% of hot drink occasions are taken with a biscuit.

"We haven't got any major plans for this area but we're starting to see a bit of an upsurge in the consumption of hot drinks again," says Burton's Sandy.

"That's good news for biscuits as there could be some opportunities to get back to that heartland."

Hot drinks and biscuits may be a no-brainer but cross-category promotional success hinges on other factors, cautions Hogg, such as the relevance of products, pricing/saving, timing, execution in store, and, of course, competitor promotions.

Top launch: Cadbury’s Crunchie biscuits (Cadbury)
In a bid to revolutionise the biscuit aisle, Burton's extended its stable of Cadbury confectionery brands in spring with the launch of its Cadbury Caramel, Crunchie and Turkish Delight biscuits.

The innovative indulgent launches hit the jackpot in 2010 with over a third of sales since launch incremental to the category.

It seems Cadbury Crunchie didn't just give shoppers that Friday feeling, but an 'every day of the week' feeling. The launches have boosted Burton's Cadbury biscuits brand, which has gained 26.3% year-on-year, taking it to £37.1m.

Top Products Survey 2010