Speaking to FoodManufacture.co.uk after the British Sandwich Association (BSA) published a report revealing the UK sandwich market was up 3.6% by value and 4% by volume in the year to February, Greencore food to go director of marketing Richard Esau said: “This is broadly in line with our own assessment of market growth.”
He added: “Barring another economic disaster, I don’t see any reason why sandwich volumes should not continue to grow although there will always be some switching between sandwiches, salads and sushi within the food-to-go category, so we don’t view these products in isolation.”
While shoppers were starting to trade up again in the sandwich fixtures, however, “we are not going to get back where we were before the [financial] crisis,” predicted Esau.
“People are still quite cautious, and there is also a sense that things could all change, as the economy is still on a knife-edge.”
He also challenged claims made in the BSA report that retailers had devalued the market by selling ultra-cheap sandwiches in a kneejerk reaction to the economic crisis in order to pre-empt a shift in the market.
“Some retailers obviously believed that there were gains to be made from offering great value options to their customers at a time when those customers were worried about the economy.
“The fact that market sales have held up rather well through most of 2009 and into 2010 indicates they may have been right.”
But he did agree with the BSA that pressure to reduce salt and fat in sandwiches risked alienating consumers: “The problem of blandness as we cut salt and fat from our recipes is beginning to be an issue, and there is real concern in the industry that consumers might turn away from our products as a result.”
Greencore had reduced saturated fat in some sandwiches through using “less or no spread”, switching to lower-fat mayonnaise and tweaking the ratios of components in its fillings, he said.
It had also made reductions in salt such that it was now in line with the Food Standards Agency’s 2010 targets. However, the 2012 targets were more challenging, he claimed.
“There will come a point where it is impossible to make sandwiches to the guidelines. There is a debate to be had as to when that point has been reached, but I think we all agree that it’s close.”
According to the BSA report, published last week, the UK sandwich market is now worth £6bn.
However, average prices charged by some retailers were not much higher than they were in 2007 “despite food cost inflation of around 10% and a 4% rise in general inflation since then”, said director Jim Winship.
“The fact that ranges on shelves changed during the recession may have been a direct cause of some down-trading. As a result it is difficult to determine how much has been driven by consumers themselves as opposed to retailer reactions.
“Some retailers over-reacted when it came to ranging and pricing at the start of the recession because of all the alarmist stories in the press. There were some knee-jerk reactions from buyers.”