Romaine lettuce

Leafy salads enjoyed their moment in the sun this summer after soaring temperatures put UK shoppers in the mood for lighter food. Sales of leafy salads rose six per cent in the past year as customers pulled more bags off the shelves than ever before.

The heatwave didn’t just put pressure on supply with strong demand, however, but also by hitting production, as lettuce “cooked in the fields” according to one supplier. Across the country, farmers battled with nightmare growing conditions, with shortages still ongoing meaning produce has been brought in from the US and other parts of Europe.

Price rises were inevitable as a result, but retailers have also opted for promotional sales to drive the category. Tom Amery, managing director of The Watercress Company, says: “The timing of the promotions and the balmy summer was a perfect storm and the offer was taken up by consumers – clearing shelves in the process and leading to increased volume at reduced value. Promoting during the hot weather was clearly a factor of increased sales but at times availability on all lines was challenged by the continuing effect of intense heat on supply not meeting the orders.”

Florette’s marketing director John Armstrong made similar observations. “Value failed to keep pace with the strong unit growth, reflecting the medium-term trend over more than the last year, for a decrease in average price per pack, as a number of key retailers reduce packs sizes to remain competitive, which has resulted in a boost to volume, but not value.”

Anthony Gardiner, marketing director of G’s, says looking at the past year, which he describes as “one of the most challenging summers for leafy salads production”, may not reveal the full picture of the heat effect. “If you cut the Kantar data just to look at the summer, you see in the 12 weeks ending 12 August that total wholehead salads grew 10.5 per cent year on year in value, and eight per cent in volume, therefore marking 2.3 per cent inflation in the category.”

Mother Nature has also made growers rethink their irrigation strategies, as extreme weather events become more common, according to meteorologists. Amery says this may result in a change of capacity targets for leaf growers. “Investment into secure and robust irrigation resources are a primary decision and as the UK irrigation-reliant grower base is being pushed towards reservoir-based (winter fill) storage, this will be resetting the capacity targets.”

But for G’s, seasonal worker shortages remains the key concern. “The bigger challenge going in to summer 2019 will the availability of labour in a post-Brexit world,” says Gardiner.

One of the upsides of this year’s scorching weather, however, may be more people engaging seriously with the category for the first time. “The macro trend for healthier eating is the primary long-term driver of the leafy salad market, with the number of households buying our products, and the number of salad-eating occasions increasing each year from its already very high base,” says Armstrong. Amery adds that increasing health awareness will continue to bring customers. “There is space to offer value aspirations in a bag of salads met not only with a clear eating quality, but nutritional content and we believe this is the gateway to loyalty and growth for many new products in the future,” says Amery.

Such an example of new products is G’s partnering with The Chia Co to sell bags of spinach with a sachet of chia seeds inside. The offering can even be used to create a pesto, with instructions provided on the back.

Florette is also focusing on demand for food-to-go. “It remains a relatively poorly serviced market from a product perspective,” says Armstrong. “In response, Florette has launched a new range of three FTG salad meals, aiming to balance health, taste and the need to be filling.”