chaz3According to market research experts Mintel, the UK market for ethnic cuisine’s retail value topped £1.3 billion in 2008. Mintel give Indian and Chinese cuisines a combined 70% of retail sales in 2008, compared to 77% in 2003. Mexican, with considerable support from suppliers, is seeing very strong growth, alongside Japanese and South East Asian.

Ready meals have historically been a popular way to eat ethnic food but in line with wider decline in ready meal consumption, demand is falling as growing numbers of consumers look for more authentic products. Cooking sauces and accompaniments/seasonings are the main beneficiaries, assisted by the wider trend towards scratch cooking.

Mintel’s research show cost and authenticity are the most important decision factors when purchasing ethnic cuisine, making these areas a priority in the retail sector. They identify four types of consumer; ‘A Nice Treat’; ‘Convenience is Key’; ‘Ethnic Purists’; and ‘Attitudinally Disengaged’.

‘Ethnic Purists’ (20% of adults) represent those with the strongest interest in ethnic cuisine and a high demand for authenticity. In contrast, ‘Convenience is Key’ (19% of adults) are typified by families looking for meal solutions.

Despite most adults claiming to eat ethnic cuisine in some form, the regularity with which they do so varies, with nearly two thirds only eating ethnic cuisine once a month at most. This presents considerable market opportunities. Mintel’s research suggests the average consumer eats an ethnic meal once a fortnight.

With Chinese and Indian so embedded, other cuisines’ ability to break into this market, will become increasingly important. Mexican and Tex-Mex are achieving some success, but only after very heavy promotional support from manufacturers. Thai is a good example of a cuisine with a strong following, which has not proved enough to prevent competition from established and emerging styles.

Authenticity is going to continue to be a major issue. Increasingly the demand for quality will be joined by a demand for healthy and functional ethnic cuisine. Tomato-based sauces could for example capitalise more on their lycopene content as a health positioning, helping raise the profiles of some ethnic cooking sauces. This brings about opportunities for NPD, but manufacturers need to be aware that not all consumers will pay a premium for ethnic food at home.

For all cuisines, the key to ethnic foods achieving sales growth in the UK is crossover – broadening purchase beyond the original ethnic group who eat these foods back home and now here, to mainstream Brit consumers. The target mainstream groups include seasoned travellers, ‘foodies’ and the male audience, with their well-documented love of hot and spicy tastes. Retailers face the challenge of satisfying all these demographics simultaneously: those managing to do so successfully will reap the rewards.

The Grocery Trader

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