How a grass roots approach helps shape great vegan product merchandising strategies

Updated: Oct 28, 2019

Plant based innovation is huge

Unless you’ve been out in the wilderness, you can’t help but notice the grass is getting greener in the grocery field.

Plant-based foods is the fastest growing food trend in the UK – this market grew to a total value of £443m in 2018. Did you know that the UK launched more vegan products last year than any other nation? The market research firm Mintel reports that one in six food products launched in the UK last year were free from animal ingredients.

Retailers face tricky merchandising decisions

Supermarket retailers are making tricky strategic decisions regarding where and how to merchandise the plethora of new plant-based products prompted by the rapid growth on both the supply and demand side.

The growth brings with it acute challenges especially in chilled, packaged groceries – where the branded and own-brand ranges are simply mushrooming. The difficulty is that there isn’t a clear cut ‘right answer’ about where to display many products because this isn’t one category that’s blossoming in isolation – the trend is touching multiple existing categories in different ways from milks to desserts to ready meals to deli to animal meats.

A complex and diverse consumer audience makes the challenge harder

It is tempting to imagine that consumers of plant-based products are pretty homogenous – surely these people are all choosing plant-based alternatives to lead a better lifestyle (for either health or environmental reasons or both)? But it’s not as simple as that. 

We’ve seen a re-shaping of the grocery consumer market and a new diversity of consumer aspirations and needs. There’s a whole host of different kinds of consumer within that ‘one’ plant-based audience - holding different priorities and commitment levels; who also vary in terms of how confident they are cooking meat-free meals, as well as the kinds of product which they are looking for or find acceptable.

To illustrate what I mean, one consumer recently commented on @Vegan to Dinner “Why does everyone assume that vegans want to eat something that looks or tastes like meat?”. Whilst another consumer was looking for just that – a meat alternative that has hero status on their plate, that looks like meat, cooks like meat, and eats like meat. 

Understanding which path consumers are treading empowers retailers to make considered, and potentially brave, merchandising strategies. It’s about going back to the grass roots of the shopper’s mindset, motivations and purchase behaviour, and discovering where the diverse kinds of plant-based product fit within the lives of different kinds of consumer.

Many consumers need help to understand the plant-based phenomenon and which products are relevant to them

One thing’s for certain, it’s not possible to put all the plant-based products together in one place in-store – there are now just too many. Retailers have quickly recognised that the Free From section cannot house a limitless supply of plant-based products in a way that is meaningful or helpful to customers. Similarly, the pre-packed deli fixtures are becoming over-loaded, and their ‘shop-ability’ is being undermined.

Retailers’ POS and section signage to signal ‘vegan’ and ‘vegetarian’ is helpful, as it really helps people consider the options and it normalises the plant-based product trend.

But even so, these sections can seem like a ‘catch all’, which shoppers can find confusing – especially those who are newcomers to plant-based foods. Where do they start? Plus getting those ‘newcomers’ and Flexitarians to come and shop that fixture can be a challenge to begin with.

Retailers are only beginning to understand, through experimentation and trial, where the best places are for the new plant-based products to be placed in order to make them easy to locate, recognise and shop. They’re starting to know what works and doesn’t work – and shoppers are beginning to learn some new rules of operation. Up until quite recently, we wouldn’t, for example, have expected to see as many plant-based milks as dairy milks in the chiller cabinet side-by-side, but over the last couple of years we have come to see this as the new norm because of their prevalence. 

Retailers are making some ground-breaking merchandising decisions

Some found it surprising, perhaps even shocking, to learn that Sainsbury’s have decided to retail many of its meat alternative products (own brand and branded products like Meatless Farm, Quorn, Linda McCartney, Heck and Vivera) in the chilled meat aisles of many of their stores.

But I believe this really makes sense when you look at whom these products are targeting – in this case, Sainsbury’s is targeting Flexitarian consumers and those who are considering plant-based foods as a direct alternative to meat in particular. We know from experience that these consumers have a whole different set of aspirations, expectations and experiences compared to a long-standing vegan consumer.  The path they’re treading is different – they come from different directions and use different points of reference when finding their way through this new landscape. 

By placing the meatless meat products next to the animal meats, Sainsbury’s is helping these consumers to shop plant-based proteins more easily, without having to divert to a different aisle, and helping them to consider sustainable food alternatives more readily. It also rationalises over-stocking of the pre-packed deli fixture. 

Consumers want retailers to help them make more sustainable food choices

Consumers expect retailers to help them make sense of the new products and ranges through their merchandising, and to help them tread new paths to supporting a more sustainable future with confidence. Of course, retailers want to harness the new food trend to maximise growth in revenues, but I also believe they want to make it easier for consumers to make choices that support a more sustainable future.

Marks & Spencer’s have introduced dedicated Plant Kitchen cabinets, Sainsbury’s have put meatless meat in the meat aisle….I’m interested to see what is on the horizon, and how better understanding of the consumer at the grass roots level will shape great innovative vegan product merchandising strategies in the future.


Caroline Thompson runs a Qualitative Research Consultancy, specialising in Consumer, Retail and Travel sectors and is Director of Vegan to Dinner. Vegan to Dinner was set up by Caroline and business partner Catherine Horner to provide meal solutions for mixed-diet families and hosts catering for mixed eating tables; and to create a forum for listening to, and engaging with, consumers interested in Flexitarian and vegan eating lifestyles. @vegan_to_dinner on Instagram @VeganToDinner on Facebook

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