Free From – Into The Mainstream

The FreeFrom sector appears to be following in the footsteps of organic and Fairtrade and moving out of the ghetto and into the mainstream. Clear evidence of this move was the fact that this year for the first time the coveted Gold Q at the Quality Food Awards was given to a FreeFrom product, Genius! gluten-free bread. Tesco took a brave decision to merchandise this bread with other fresh breads as well as in the free-from “ghetto”. The results were sales that exceeded everyone’s most optimistic projections.

The parallels here with organic are striking. When Sainsbury’s took the bold decision to disband their organic aisle and migrate the organic products into their parent categories hard-line organic shoppers were dismayed as it meant they had to shop the whole store instead of just one small bit. But organic sales rocketed as more mainstream shoppers discovered organics for the first time – the act of having organics side-by-side with ‘normal’ products on the main aisles made them more approachable. Sensibly Sainsbury’s waited to make this move until product quality and price premium were both acceptable to mainstream consumers. They obviously do not feel that point has arrived yet with FreeFrom as their recent major relaunch/redesign of the brand has been set in a greatly enlarged and enhanced FreeFrom section which they have struggled hard to de-ghetto-ise but which certainly still sits quite separate from the main store.

None the less, this tipping point may rapidly be approaching . Certainly soymilk and soya yoghurts are now considered to be regular products. Whilst the dedicated FreeFrom aisles in Asda and Sainsbury’s have worked well, as the sector matures it may be time for FreeFrom to be merchandised in the parent categories. A potential challenge here is that the products would then be bought by the category buyer, so FreeFrom training for buyers would be essential.

Last year Mintel estimated the size of the UK FreeFrom market as around £213 million per year at retail and forecast that the UK market for FreeFrom would reach £280m by 2012.  Growth is expected to come from “restricters”  rather than allergic or intolerant consumers. Only 30% of UK shoppers currently buy into FreeFrom, 10% because of a food intolerance and 20% because they see it as a healthy option. The way to reach the these restricters is to have FreeFrom merchandised as widely as possible throughout the store and well away from the current FreeFrom ghetto. Only then will retailers be able to capitalise fully on current consumer interest and product quality improvements.

Meanwhile, all of the majors are continuing to push the freefrom concept; Sainsbury’s with its February relaunch/rebrand; Waitrose with an own label brand last year for the first time; Asda and Morrisons with on-going NPD and Tesco by putting both their name and significant funding into industry awards which exclusively cover the FreeFrom sector.