Sandwich culture keeps Brits at their desks

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Meal, Uk

The dominance of the sandwich among UK menus keeps many office
workers anchored to their desks at lunchtime - a concept which
would shock most Continental Europeans, who feel the need for a
break at lunchtime.

Hectic lifestyles and increased snacking are reducing the average office worker to ‘desk-dining’, reveals a new report from Reuters Business Insight.

Across Europe lunchtime is gradually losing favour with hungry workers opting for a ‘bite at the desk’ instead of a sit down civilised meal.

The UK has one of the lowest per head spends on working lunch reflecting the declining long lunch culture. Sandwiches rule the roost there but are becoming increasingly popular across other European countries. Despite being in a hurry, consumers are not skimping on health; traditional ingredients and meat-based foods are expected to lose importance in the future to ethnic, organic and vegetarian food products.

According to the report consumers' behaviour towards lunchtime has changed as a result of several key factors: more hectic lifestyles and longer working hours have compressed the lunch break of many office workers into little more than a half-hour 'pit stop'. In addition, traditional meal times have deteriorated with consumers snacking throughout the day.

“Lunch is rarely missed altogether as it is increasingly viewed as a moment, however brief, for office workers to treat themselves to a reward following a stressful morning or as a diversion from office boredom,"​ commented Daniel Lord, Reuters Business Insight analyst and author of the report.

The working lunch accounts for the majority of lunchtime expenditure and is a clear opportunity for manufacturers targeting out-of-home consumption. Drinks account for about 5 per cent to 10 per cent of the lunch market in most countries, although the contribution made by alcoholic drinks varies between countries. In France, for example, there is relatively high acceptance of drinking some alcohol with lunch, while it is now a rare accompaniment to lunch in the UK. In the UK, the lunch market is expected to grow substantially, with the market forecast to be worth around £16 bn (€25bn) in 2005.

A clear reflection of the different attitudes towards eating in Europe is revealed through adult consumer spending. Expenditure on the lunchtime meal differs greatly from country to country in relation to the relative importance attached to the occasion.

In Spain, where the lunchtime meal is the most important meal of the day and an opportunity for family gatherings, lunchtime expenditure per head is high at £4.10 (€6.40). By comparison, UK per head expenditure is far lower, at £2.10, accounting for the declining importance of the lunch occasion as snacking assumes a greater 'share of stomach'.

The Italians go home, Swedes go to restaurants and Brits go to the supermarket, continues the report.

The popularity of different lunch channels is highly dependent on national culture; business canteens are popular in Germany and Scandinavia, while cafés dominate the French market. At home consumption is highest in Italy, where consumers see lunch as a family occasion.

While supermarkets dominate the lunchtime market in the UK, accounting for 30 per cent of the lunchtime spend, 60 per cent of the Swedish lunchtime spend is channelled into restaurants with only 10 per cent spent in supermarkets. In Spain, restaurants dominate the lunchtime occasion, accounting for 35 per cent. In the UK convenience eating and on-the-go consumption is well developed, with quick-serve restaurants and sandwich bars dominating the lunch, accounting for nearly 50 per cent of the market.

The UK ‘sarnie’ market is the most developed in the world. During the last decade, the UK sandwich market has witnessed an explosion in sales, attributable to the change of lifestyles which have led to less formal eating occasions.

The popularity of desk dining has increased significantly in the UK. With more and more foodservice chains such as McDonalds and Marks and Spencer delivering lunchtime orders to the office, there is no longer a real need for workers to leave the workstation. Demand for sandwiches continues to rise in the UK and consumers now eat more than a two billion sandwiches a year.

Although consumption levels are lower in continental Europe, there is increasing acceptance of sandwiches, particularly in France. The key development of this sector has been the growth of the pre-packed sandwich sector, highlights the report. In general, new sandwich development falls within the following trends: new formats, either through the adoption of new bread types to the sandwich concept, such as bagels, wraps and flatbreads, or through the use of new bread flavours, such as olive or tomato bread.

Innovation has also been seen in the form of new fillings, from ingredients derived from traditional local specialties, to ethnic ingredients from Asia and North Africa.

Recent success of bagel products suggests that bagels may make significant gains in the near future and become established as a key sandwich format. The UK bagel market is currently in its early stages - worth about £20mn, but growing at a healthy 50 per cent per annum.

Manufacturers have been guilty of taking a 'unisex' approach to product development. However, now that pre-prepared retail lunch foods have gained acceptance in Europe, the market must develop products that pander to the distinct nutritional requirements of men and women. Salads, for example, may still be most popular among women, but many men might be keen to eat a salad for lunch if more substantial products were available. Sandwiches have also been seen as a feminine snack in some countries, and the market is only now developing, with bigger sandwiches that appeal to men.

Although men and women's tastes may differ, the most important difference for lunch foods is quantity - in terms of weight/volume or calorie content. Last year, the average weight of a lunch product targeted specifically at women weighed 188g, compared to 201g for men. This represents a difference of about 5 per cent, and the report predicts that this difference will become more significant as the market develops. In the UK sandwich market for example, there has been a lot of recent development in larger products - including 'The Big One' which is a larger than standard size sandwich aimed at men.

Of course, nutritionists might argue that if everyone ate a decent size sandwich at lunchtime, they wouldn’t feel the need to snack throughout the day.

For many children, lunch is an opportunity to impress their peers with innovative and fashionable foods - an environment that is perfectly suited to the popular lunchbox assortments, known as 'lunchables'. While it may be tempting for manufacturers to indulge children's tastes with foods that are laden with sugar, salt and saturated fats, this is a risky strategy that could easily meet the parental veto or attract unwanted media attention.

Organic issues are particularly relevant to younger people and there is a clear market opportunity for exciting organic children's lunch foods. There is significant regional variation in children's lunch culture - Dutch, German, and Italian children are most likely to eat at home, while school meals are most popular in France, Spain and Sweden. Lunchboxes are a largely UK-US phenomenon.

The report reveals more evidence to suggest that meat-based foods are losing their appeal. More than a decade of reliance on convenient lunch solutions has left consumers searching for healthier alternatives that do not sacrifice convenience, writes Reuters Business Insight​. Functional foods can make a positive impact on lifestyle issues such as weight control, mental wellbeing and performance; as well as on ‘life stage issues’ such as disease prevention and preparation for childbirth. The Boots Shapers range of low and light lunch foods provide an example of how innovative and healthy lunch options can appeal to both men and women.

The report predicts that traditional ingredients and meat-based foods are expected to lose importance in the future to ethnic, organic and vegetarian foods products.

Related topics: Retail & Shopper Insights

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