Shoppers buy their taste of the good life

November 23, 2012

Two-thirds of U.S. consumers buy specialty foods while they economize elsewhere.

Specialty foods own a special place in post-recession U.S. households. These cheeses, coffees, meats and snacks may cost more per pound than mainstream staples, but most families still manage ways to fit them into a budget.

Supermarkets that visibly display specialty items differentiate their image and presentation from price-driven food sellers. They also appeal to higher-end shoppers and modest households that aspire to eat specialty more often—even if it’s not a specialty meal, but a specialty ingredient or two to enliven a meal.

Growth data support the role of specialty foods in the nation’s psyche. Specialty foods are attainable tools for families to have a taste of the good life, even if day-to-day isn’t as delightful as it used to be. Eating them isn’t like a night out at the theater or a tropical vacation, but it can jolt a meal and help relieve tedium at home.

For the first time, U.S. retail and foodservice sales of specialty foods and beverages topped the $75 billion mark, on a 6.9% gain in 2011, says The State of the Specialty Food Industry 2012 report. Issued by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, and prepared with Mintel International and SPINS, the data showed specialty foods accounted for 13.7% of all retail food sales.

This growth came from a full two-thirds of U.S. consumers (66%) who say they bought specialty foods within the past six months, up from 59% in 2011 and 46% in 2009, according to findings in Today’s Specialty Food Consumer 2012, a new NASFT report prepared with Mintel International. Specialty-food households spend a mean of $94 per week on food, up from $90 in 2011—22% of it on specialty foods.

Retail presentation is key to success with these categories, since impulse drives more than 40% of consumers to buy specialty foods, the study found. The top two drivers for buying specialty are taste and recommendations from family and friends, while the top two reasons to buy are “everyday meals at home” and “to treat themselves."

More highlights from the consumer-focused research:
    •    The consumers most likely to buy specialty foods are between the ages of 25 and 34. Nearly three-quarters (73%) do so.
    •    Regional differences emerge—74% of consumers in the West buy them, compared with 71% in the Northeast and 56% in the Midwest. New England and mid-Atlantic consumers are likelier than average to buy specialty foods at supermarkets, while Pacific consumers go to natural food stores.
    •    Chocolate is the most-purchased category, followed by olive oil and other specialty oils, cheese and yogurt/kefir. Coffee and chocolate are the specialty foods most likely to be bought online.
Looking back at the state-of-the-industry research, several highlights are:
    •    Natural food stores led retail growth with dollar sales up 19.8% between 2009 and 2011.
    •    41% of specialty food manufacturers reported 20%+ sales gains in 2011.
    •    Kosher is the leading claim for new specialty food products.
    •    Retailers say Latin is the fastest emerging cuisine.