Proof that the UK consumer is still very partial to a snack or two comes in the form of new research from market analysts Mintel. According to the report, in 2002 the UK accounted for a whacking 51 per cent of total value sales of savoury snacks, way ahead of its nearest rivals: Germany, with an 18 per cent share, France with 14 per cent, Spain at 9 per cent and Italy with 8 per cent.
With our eyes turned towards our fellow 'snackaholics' in the US, it is perhaps of little surprise that whereas 86 per cent of the British eat crisps or savoury snacks, less than half of Italians - 46 per cent - do so.
But, reports Mintel, despite the high consumption levels we are not yet at saturation point - ensuring further growth in the short to medium term.
"Snacking is a well-established habit, with four out of 10 British adults admitting to do so. Clearly the products have satisfied the need for a quick way to stave off hunger and sales will continue to be driven by new product development and massive marketing budgets," commented Anne Bourgeois, European consumer goods consultant at Mintel.
The research confirms previous knowledge that the UK snacks market is currently being driven forward by lifestyle trends, including the increasing popularity of 'eating on the go', the rise in at-home entertainment, which has encouraged the sharing of snacks, and the growing spending of children and teenagers, who constitute a prime market.
British snackers are munching their way through record amounts of potato crisps and savoury snacks in a market estimated to be worth a staggering €4 billion by the end of 2002, almost three times bigger than the second biggest European market, Germany.
According to Mintel, while British adults spend on average €69 on savoury snack per year, the French spend just over €19 and the Italians as little as €11 a year.
Between 1997 and 2002, UK sales of savoury snacks grew by 18 per cent. Growth, however, has latterly been slow, held back by heavy discounting in the multiples and by a decline in impulse sales in 2001 and again in 2002.
A somewhat negative market factor has also been competition from other snacks, continues the research. "A key factor affecting the savoury snacks market is that traditional styles of products are increasingly coming under pressure from 'alternative' snacks," added Bourgeois. "For example, there is now a great deal of crossover between cookies and snacks, between confectionery brands and snacks, as well as completely new types of snack-oriented product such as pouch-packed yoghurt."
But the Mintel research suggests that the rest of Europe might be catching up with the UK. The Italian and Spanish markets showed impressive growth over the same period with market growth standing at 57 per cent and 58 per cent respectively. With the increasing urbanisation of Spanish society and the likelihood of both partners within the household going out to work, meals are inevitably being consumed outside the home.
The combination of increased personal disposable income and less time for food preparation favours an increasing trend to eat snacks between meals, writes Mintel.
Ill-disciplined eating habits mean that the British are more likely to eat between-meal snacks than their European counterparts. According to the Mintel research, over 40 per cent of the adult population admit they often eat between meals and keep eating snacks. Germans are keen snackers too with 36 per cent of them. In France and Italy - where mealtimes still take place at a fixed moment in the day - only a quarter of the population have developed this habit.
It would appear that snacking is largely in the domain of the young, particularly the under 20s with over 64 per cent of them snacking between meals. Older consumers still maintain traditional eating patterns and have been reluctant to adopt the snacking habit. Only a quarter of those aged over 55 eat between meals.
"The importance of children as snacks consumers is compounded by rises in their spending power, based on a mix of pocket money and odd-job income, and the efficacy of 'pester power' in opening their parents' wallets," said Anne Bourgeois.
Children's average personal disposable income has risen by 79 per cent in Euro terms between 1996 and 2001 to over €10 a week, with the highest increases in the income of 11- to 13-year-olds, 8- to 10-year-olds and boys, which will have boosted sales of the more teenage-orientated and older child mainstream snacks.
Potato crisps remain the UK's favourite savoury snack, accounting for 47 per cent of the total savoury snacks market in 2002. Some 86 per cent of the adult population indulge in the odd packet, compared to 66 per cent in Spain, 60 per cent in France, 44 per cent in Germany and 40 per cent in Italy.
In France, other savoury snacks, such as Tuc and Ritz, are actually more popular than potato crisps with almost three-quarters of the adult population buying them. While the French are avid consumers of savoury snacks, biscuits and nuts with a drink before a meal, the consumption of savoury snacks and crisps between meals have not yet become widely accepted.
The British may be among the most ardent snackers in Europe and form by far the largest market, but they still lag considerably behind the US. Mintel anticipates the savoury snacks market to rise by 12 per cent in the next four years. "Constant new product development will remain crucial to maintain the interest of young consumers. Savoury snacks in particular lend themselves to the introduction of new varieties in terms of shape, taste, flavour, texture and packaging and this trend will help to drive the market over the coming years," concluded Anne Bourgeois.
According to Mintel, strongest market expansion is expected to come from France, Italy and Spain where the analysts forecast market growth of 37 per cent, 33 per cent and 22 per cent respectively over the next four years.
For further information on the Mintel report Snacks in Europe, check the Mintel website.