Posted: 28/05/2020

Why retailers should stick with plant-based foods during (and after) COVID lockdown

Lentil salad plant-based

Many retailing success stories during the coronavirus pandemic have been grounded in supplying the basics – meat, vegetables, bread, eggs – to consumers, but you would be wrong to think that plant-based products have taken a back seat.

That’s the view of Julie Cleijne, CEO of plant-based consultancy business Sustainable Kitchen. She cites a recent Vegan Society survey (of 3,600 consumers) that found 21.5% of 18-64 year olds in the UK had cut down their meat consumption since lockdown began.

Of these consumers, 41% did this because they could not buy their preferred animal products in shops and 43% said it was for health, environmental or ethical reasons. Some 19% said they would continue to buy plant-based alternatives after lockdown.

julie cleijne sustainable kitchen
Julie Cleijne

“Even before lockdown, the rise of the flexitarian consumer was noticeable,” Cleijne told FFD. “One third of all meals in the home were meatless, and numerous high street chains introduced plant-based alternatives to their menus to cater to the growing demand.”

With this in mind, Sustainable Kitchen has put together 10 things for retailers to consider when it comes to stocking vegan and vegetarian products in the current climate:

Fears surrounding COVID-19 have shone a spotlight on concerns surrounding the need for strong immunity, heart health and managing excess weight. Keep in mind that just because a food product is plant-based, it does not necessarily mean it is healthy. Savvy consumers will be interested in products with ‘clean labels’, without overly processed ingredients.

In the past, the motivation for consumers seeking plant-based products was to avoid animal products. Now, they are considering what is included. For example, they are looking for functional health benefits such as pre or pro biotics, fibre, protein, fermented foods, whilst still wanting as natural product as possible.

Many plant-based products are made with ingredients such as wheat, gluten, tofu, soybeans, and nuts. These are all allergens, so it is important to make sure that the products you stock don’t end up being foods that many customers need to avoid. Stock a variety of products that provide options to your customers, regardless of their dietary needs, and look for emerging allergen-free plant-based products made with ingredients such as sunflower seeds, hemp, or chickpea.

Plant-based patties are one of the most popular products in the meat alternative market, due to the ever increasing number of producers emerging with their plant-based versions.  But don’t just limit your plant-based range to burgers, and sausages.  Consider the increasing number of more innovative products such as veg based flours, pastas and dairy-free cheese alternatives.  And don’t forget drinks – for example, more and more wine producers are increasing their range of vegan wines.

Sustainability & Provenance
Customer trust in where and how a product has been made and packaged, has become just as important a consideration as the ingredients used to make them. It is not just the environmental concerns related to raising animals and animal suffering that have resulted in consumers opting for non-animal protein sources, and you should consider other sustainability factors such as fair trade, locality and even seasonality of product ingredients.

Dairy-free has been the fastest growing category in the ‘free-from’ product ranges since 2013, driven by those with allergens and intolerances, plus also animal welfare concerns and the rise in veganism. 

The Vegan Society survey found 54% and 42% of those who had tried soy and almond dairy alternatives respectively for the first time in lockdown said they would buy them regularly ­once lockdown was lifted.

Consider stocking a variety of different alternatives, as they all have different flavours, consistency, fat content and protein structures, and can be used for either cooking or with cereals, and hot drinks. Don’t forget to check what allergens each variety does carry, too.

Placement & signage in store
How you talk about a product, and where it is situated in store, is just as applicable to plant-based products as it is to any other category.

Try to avoid signposting products under headings such as ‘alternatives’, or ‘free-from’, as this can put off customers, and could even mean customers won’t try a specific product because of a pre-conceived bias. 

An example that worked well for a store owner we know was to place all allergen-free, healthy and plant-based items in a section labelled ‘Wellbeing’, which has a far more positive ring to it.

Staff awareness
Make sure your staff are well-versed in showing customers where specific products are, and use language that sells the products in a positive way.

Research shows that when products are talked about with what is in them, rather than what is not in them, they are more favourably received.  For example “Silky smooth pannacotta with Italian coffee syrup and Sicilian almonds”, sounds much more appealing than a “vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free pannacotta” 

Staying in is the new going out
Consumers have become more ­adventurous in the kitchen since lockdown, so make sure you have a good variety of raw ingredients for them to experiment with plant-based cooking. Consider having recipes available for them to pick up in store, so they can buy ingredients from you and cook at home.

Plan ahead with your café/restaurant menus
If you have a café or restaurant, now is a great time to review your menus and introduce some seasonal plant-based options to appeal to your customers once lockdown is over.

It’s also a good time to make sure your kitchen is set up appropriately, with separate preparation areas and equipment for all meatless dishes.

Finally, consider how you will reach the target audience for your plant-based products, and include marketing in your overall strategy. Right now, digital channels seem to be the best bet and social media platforms like Instagram chime particularly well with consumers who are into food, let alone plant-based lifestyles.

For more advice selecting your plant-based, allergen-free or healthier products and menus, you can contact the Sustainable Kitchen team via


Read the latest edition of Fine Food Digest here.

Return to the top