The UK ethnic foods retail market continues to develop as new cuisines arrive with incoming populations, and sharp eyed importers and wholesalers spot the opportunity and cater to it with consumer products.

But for multiple grocers the real jackpot in terms of sales and profits comes when ethnic cuisines cross over from their original group into the mainstream.

Chinese is Britain’s most popular ethnic cuisine, according to a recent survey by market research specialists Mintel, with Indian coming a close second. But in retail sales, Indian comes top, beating Chinese by £189 million in 2010. Between them, these two cuisines account for 70 per cent of UK retail ethnic food sales.

Mintel predicts that the retail market for ethnic foods will break the £1.5 billion barrier by 2013. However, its latest research shows that sales of ready meals have declined, while the value of accompaniments and sauces has increased, suggesting more of us are choosing to cook Chinese, Indian and other ethnic foods ourselves.

Ready meals based on restaurant and takeaway favourites 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.

As well as saving money, greater awareness about healthy eating and a desire to adapt meals to personal taste appear to be factors in the trend towards more home 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.

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 travelers, ‘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 the feat successfully will reap the rewards.

The Grocery Trader

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