Calmer canned conditions but few heroes

Exchange rates are less volatile this year than last, says Steve Thomas, chairman of Canned Food UK.

The fact that about one-third of canned food is imported significantly contributed to the sharp rises in value across the canned category as a whole last year. But, despite more stable conditions, it isn't exactly easy for canned food manufacturers.

Fish is arguably experiencing the most challenging times of any of the six sub-categories, with an overall 3.4% decline in sales and volumes down 2.4%. John West, however, is bucking the trend, regaining its spot taken by Princes last year at the top of canned fish.

In a market that declined by £17.3m (£23.3m for own label), sales of John West are up a remarkable £11.2m, or 8%, to £151.6m, against Princes' £6.3m decline. And it's little wonder, given the brand rolled out its successful No Drain Less Mess concept (first introduced in February 2009) to its entire 15-strong canned tuna portfolio in May this year. No Drain was developed to overcome a barrier to eating canned tuna the mess of draining it with huge consumer demand as a result.

While Princes may be down in value, it's not out, argues marketing director Ruth Simpson. "Princes' current performance is exceptionally strong. We've achieved double-digit growth in the last 12-week period, both in volume and value terms we are the clear brand leader," she insists. She points to the launch of Princes' Infused Tuna Steaks in July, claiming it was designed to "maintain consumer interest and keep the fixture fresh".

At least Princes has reversed its fortunes in canned fruit; in fact, following last year's 8.8% sales decline, sales grew by £4.1m, or 62%,to £10.6m. "We decided to invest to rejuvenate the category through a mix of above-the-line ads, NPD and promotional support," says Simpson. This also resulted in distribution gains. And Simpson is promising further NPD next year.

Yet, despite Princes' success in the category, Thomas is sceptical about the future of canned fruit as a whole. He cites consumers switching away from traditional desserts to which they may have added canned fruit as one reason for its long-term decline. Perhaps more surprising is that volume sales of baked beans are down by 1% and value sales also fell, albeit modestly, although own-label declines totalled £12.8m, a 12.4% loss.

This makes the performance of Heinz all the more remarkable. Already miles ahead of its nearest rival, Branston, sales actually slowed on last year as the 2009 launch of Snap Pots bedded in, but adding £11m is a superb effort. Heinz attributes success to "delighting and exciting" the shopper.

"Responding to consumers' changing tastes such as health and convenience, while maintaining interest in the market with innovative new products remains critical and will help rescue the category's reliance on promotions," it claims.

But while Heinz's core range had a good year, the company's WeightWatchers portfolio is in the doldrums. Sales of WeightWatchers baked beans fell by 15.1% to £5.1m, and canned pasta was down 18.6% to £1.2m. In beans, Heinz blames the "small shift" away from WeightWatchers partially on the launch of reduced sugar and salt variants in the core brand.

However, it has firm plans in place to rebuild its canned sector value in both baked beans and pasta. A brand refresh is in the pipeline, which will coincide with the launch of the new ProPoints system currently being introduced across the board by WeightWatchers International.

Meanwhile, the only sub-category to see volume or value growth was canned veg. All the leading brands apart from Napolina (which has seen a 1% dip) increased sales over the past year, while own-label sales declined. Thomas claims that success may in part have been due to the strong performance of pulses.

In canned meat, which, together with canned meat experienced a 0.4% sales decline even the effects of the recession have not lifted sales of Spam. It was one of only two of the top 10 canned meat lines to report a decline in sales, with sales down 5.5% to £16m. Store cupboard staple Fray Bentos, on the other hand, has seen sales climb 7.8% and Ye Olde Oak also posted a £2.8m rise in sales. As with beans and fish, own label was the main casualty.

Launch of the Year: Heinz Beanz Fridge Pack (Heinz)
The boyz at Heinz have done it again. Heinz Snap Pots, launched in 2007, brought new levels of convenience to baked beans. After all, what more could a connoisseur wish for than a personally sized portion in a handy microwaveable pot?

But a new 1kg screw-lid fridge pack, launched in September, allows greedy bean-lovers everywhere to feed at will (once opened, the pack will stay fresh for five days). Whatever will they think of next?

Can we suggest Heinz: Bean and Gone - a handy impulse pack in the shape of a crisp packet, perfect for eating beans on the go.

Top Products Survey 2010