U.K. Organic Food Returns to Growth After Four-Year Fall

High Spenders and Environmentally-Conscious Under 35s Boost the Sector

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After four years of tumbling sales, organic food is back in favor with U.K. shoppers. Big spenders and younger, environmentally-conscious consumers pushed sales – which fell 12% in 2010 – back to 1.2% growth, according to Nielsen.

At the U.K.'s largest supermarket, Tesco, organic banana sales were up 60%, organic feta cheese up 95%, and organic whole milk up 40%, while at rival Sainsbury's, organic sales rose a full 7% last year.

Organic food supplier Abel & Cole, which came close to collapse in 2009, reported a 24% increase in sales to $63 million for 2013. Even with the recession still biting and wage increases negligible, Brits somehow found $2.1 billion to pay premium prices for organic food.

Last year's horsemeat scandal provided the biggest wake-up call for shoppers, leaving them in no doubt that the constant scramble for lower prices had impacted supermarkets' standards. Anxious new parents in particular have flocked to organic, which makes up 54% of all baby-food purchases, according to the Soil Association.

On top of this, the Organic Trade Board ran a well-timed advertising campaign in 2013, sending out a message to consumers at a time they were prepared to listen.

The Organic Trade Board's print campaign explained the benefits of organic food in an accessible, light-hearted tone, using talking carrots, chickens, and plums, and ending with the line, "Organic. Naturally different." In one, a factory-farmed chicken says, "OMG! The place was packed. Everyone who was anyone was there. Where were you?" The other chicken replies, "Outdoors. Nothing personal hun. I'm organic."

The ads do not shy away from the fact that organic food is more expensive, saying, "You get what you pay for, so buy something organic today." Catherine Fookes, campaign manager at the Organic Trade Board, said, "We used the campaign to explain the benefits in a simple way. The key benefits are the lack of pesticide residue and the animal welfare message."

The campaign, by agency Haygarth, targeted London and the South East of England, where 70% of organic food and drink is sold. Nationally, the ads were seen on the websites of some of the biggest supermarkets – Sainsbury, Tesco and Ocado – where they produced a sales uplift of between 25% and 80%.

Brands and retailers funded 50% of the campaign last year, and will do the same in 2014. It's worth their while to attract organic shoppers who, according to Ms. Fookes, spend twice as much on groceries as non-organic shoppers. The European Union contributes the other 50% of the budget, which will total about $1 million a year in a six-year commitment that started with the 2013 campaign.

Ms. Fookes believes that, as well as the horsemeat scandal, the small upturn in the economy last year helped to bring customers back to organic food. She said, "Our core committed shoppers never stopped buying organic. It was the dabblers who didn't dabble so much. But now they understand the benefits more, and they care a little bit more – it's on their minds about what they should eat.

The biggest growth area, Ms. Fookes said, was with the under-35s. "They understand the environment and the health benefits and they aren't prepared to compromise. They would rather eat organic meat twice a week than non-organic meat every day."

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