UK organic food sales soar despite lockdown

22 Jun 2020

Sales of organic food in the UK have reached record levels and increased during the COVID-19 lockdown – but can the sales be sustained now that the panic buying has subsided?

Sales of organic products (including personal care, textiles, and other non-food items) grew 4.5% in 2019 to reach a record £2.45 billion, according a report, Organic Market 2020, published by the UK’s organic certification authority, the Soil Association.

UK organic food sales soar despite lockdown

British shoppers now spend £200m a month on organic food and drink and, despite the current COVID-19 crisis, the organic market is set to surpass the £2.5 billion (€2.8b) sales mark by the end of the year – equivalent to more than 50% growth in the past decade.

During the worst months of the pandemic in the UK, March and April, sales of organic food increased. In March, certified organic processors who supply supermarkets with produce experienced a 25.6% increase in sales, according to Nielsen data.

Organic offers ‘food integrity’ in a post-COVID-19 world

Although this jump can be attributed to panic buying in the early days of the nationwide lockdown, the Soil Association expects the gains to continue after the global health crisis has subsided.

“Organic products deliver on many of the benefits that shoppers may be on the lookout for ‘post COVID’ – natural, healthy and tasty food and drink that’s been sourced and farmed with care,” a spokesperson for the association said. “The integrity of organic during this time of great uncertainty is likely to be more important to many too – as well as the transparency of sourcing – including buying British, where possible.

“Organic has always enjoyed much popularity through online shopping and box schemes too – and during this crisis, the uptake has been even higher. We expect to see this habit of buying organic for home delivery to continue for many shoppers post COVID-19.”

To sustain these sales beyond the pandemic, the Soil Association said it was working to ensure “new positive buying experiences become new habits”. This included finding new opportunities to remind the public about the benefits of organic for health, animal welfare and the environment, the spokesperson said.

Best-performing categories

The report, published in 2020, shows that tea & coffee, cereals, jams & spreads, oils, and soft drinks were the best performing ambient categories while eggs, poultry, bananas, and chilled convenience foods were the star categories for fresh produce.

Organic wine was the biggest success story of 2019, however, with sales increasing 47% to be worth an estimated £50 million (€56m). The Soil Association attributed this to the decision of premium retailer Waitrose and hard discounter Aldi to expand their ranges of organic wine.

Business development director at the Soil Association Clare McDermott said this showed that if retailers stocked more organic products, shoppers would buy them.

Organic profits from plant-based boom

The popularity of plant-based foods is also boosting organic sales because many plant-based brands source certified organic ingredients for their products. Since 2015, sales of in-home plant-based meals and products have increased by nearly one quarter (23%), according to Kantar Worldpanel.

British supermarkets are giving increased shelf-space to plant-based and vegetarian brands, which in turn gives greater exposure to organic products. In September 2019, for example Tesco launched vegan zones in many of its stores while Waitrose has a two-metre chilled fixture for vegan and vegetarian foods.

Despite this role played by supermarkets, alternative and online channels are becoming increasingly important for organic sales. While supermarkets remain the main retail channel for organic food sales enjoying a 64% share, this dropped by 1% as consumers increasingly opt for online platforms and home delivery, which grew by 11.2%.

The success of online is being fuelled by a rise in demand for organic vegetable box schemes, which deliver seasonal fruit and vegetables directly to consumers’ homes, and by online retailers such as Ocado, which has over 4,500 products in its organic range.

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