Specialty foods extend hot streak

April 21, 2014

Purchases escalate in most categories, yet supermarket growth is outpaced by specialty and natural food stores.

In an economy where millions of households forgo purchases of homes, cars, trips and boats, consumers do apparently perceive specialty foods as affordable indulgences. 

Dollar sales of specialty foods have grown 8% to exceed $88.3 billion in 2013, reports the Specialty Food Association (SFA), which together with Mintel International and SPINS, tracked product sales through supermarkets, specialty food stores, and natural food retailers. Their report, The State of the Specialty Food Industry 2014, details that $70.2 billion (79.5% of the total) of the sales occurred at retail, and $18.1 billion (20.5%) occurred in foodservice.

It isn’t healthier foods alone that drive supermarket trips these days, we feel at F3. It is more interesting foods as well. These could be foods that remind people of places they’ve traveled, foods their ethnic neighbors have shared or told them about, foods with better nutritive profiles and ingredients, or simply foods that taste uncommon. Any of these traits are “special”; while some are upscale and pricey, not all of them are, which means they are accessible.

F3 sees specialty foods as foods with cool stories about their origins, how they’re cooked, and how and why’ve they’ve become popular. These are “special” to a nation tired of cutting back everywhere on what they really want to buy. Retailers make them more so with the right merchandising, such as cheese caves, wine boutiques, self-serve nut butter dispensers, arrays of imported teas, and more. They can be focal points of home entertaining, or simply welcome touches that uplift routine, budget meals for the family.

The SFA lists 59 food categories under the specialty umbrella, and they represent all areas of the store – refrigerated, frozen and shelf-stable. Here are some of the most significant trends revealed by data within the SFA 2014 report: 

The five largest segments are:

  • Cheese and cheese alternatives - $3.99 billion in 2013, up 16.1% from the 2011 level of $3.44 billion.
  • Frozen and refrigerated meat, poultry and seafood - $2.26 billion, up 17.6% from 2011’s $1.92 billion.
  • Chips, pretzels and snacks - $2.19 billion, up 19.1% from 2011’s $1.84 billion.
  • Coffee, coffee substitutes, and cocoa - $2.10 billion, up 23.2% from 2011’s $1.70 billion.
  • Yogurt and kefir - $1.96 billion, up 20.4% from 2011’s $1.63 billion.

On the fastest growth pace:

  • Nut and seed butters - $231 million in 2013, up 51.6% from 2011’s $153 million.
  • Eggs - $228 million, up 35.9% from 2011’s $168 million.
  • Frozen desserts - $1.34 billion, up 28.2% from 2011’s $1.05 billion.
  • Refrigerated condiments - $382 million, up 28.1% from 2011’s $298 million.
  • Ready-to-drink tea and coffee - $565 million, up 25.4% from 2011’s $451 million.

The specialty segments that control the most share vs. their non-specialty equivalents:

  • Refrigerated salsas and dips - $821 million, a 49.8% share of the $165 billion total market.
  • Tea - $752 million, a 40.1% share of the $1.88 billion total market.
  • Refrigerated pasta and pizza sauces - $17 million, a 30.9% share of the $55 million total market.
  • Pickles, peppers, olives and other vegetables - $795 million, a 29.6% share of the $2.68 billion total market.
  • Yogurt and kefir - $1.96 billion, a 26.3% share of the $7.46 billion total market.

Moreover, importers say that Latin and Mediterranean are two of the fastest-growing cuisines, and 70% of retailers say “local” is the most important product claim, the report notes. And while supermarkets are growing specialty food sales, they are losing share to specialty and natural food retailers (see table).