Consumers discover what's so special about specialty foods

by Monica Watrous
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Specialty foods are gaining traction among a variety of consumers.

NEW YORK – Specialty food is drawing new consumers, including men and lower-income shoppers. Nearly half of adults surveyed bought specialty foods in the past six months, according to new consumer research from the Specialty Food Association and Mintel International.

Specialty food sales topped $100 billion for the first time last year and continue to grow. Specialty food shoppers are spending one in three food dollars on specialty food, up from one in four in 2014 and one in five in 2013.

The findings are based on an on-line survey of 1,683 adults in July. Core specialty food consumers are ages 25 to 44 with household incomes of $75,000 or more. Since the research began in 2005, men have for the first time surpassed women slightly as more likely to buy specialty food. And while consumers with incomes of $75,000 are twice as likely as those earning less than $50,000 to purchase these products, the less affluent shoppers are buying the same wide variety.

“As the market grows, the specialty food consumer is evolving,” said Denise Purcell, head of content for the Specialty Food Association. “There are opportunities for food makers and retailers to grow their businesses by appealing to new audiences and changing needs.”

Of those surveyed, 43 percent said they choose specialty foods to avoid artificial ingredients and preservatives, and one in three specialty food dollars are spent on products with a natural or organic claim.

Packaged tea, yogurt and kefir, nuts, seeds and dried fruit and vegetables are rising in popularity, but such treats as ice cream, cookies, brownies and cakes rank among the most purchased specialty food products.

Supermarkets and natural food stores are the leading businesses where respondents said they recently bought specialty foods. Millennials buy specialty foods from the widest range of retailers, while baby boomers prefer supermarkets and Generation X are more likely to shop at farmers markets. Nearly a third of consumers are using or seeking an online delivery service for specialty foods. As convenience plays a bigger role in shopping patterns, retailers may benefit from offering more in-store ready-to-eat meal options, the Specialty Food Association said.

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