Specialty Foods Are Becoming a Regular Staple Again

Americans are once again indulging in specialty foods the way they did before the recession, and they're expected to make big purchases of these affordable luxuries during the holiday season.

According to a recent survey by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, 63% of American consumers purchased a total of $63 billion worth of specialty food this year, a major jump over 2009, when just 46% of American consumers indulged, and 2008, when 56% did. In 2007, before the economic meltdown, 63% of American consumers purchased specialty foods.

The NASFT attributes this year's recovery in purchases of specialty foods -- which it defines as foods of premium quality, often made by small or local manufacturers and often with exotic or ethnic flavors, or other distinctive characteristics -- to improving economic conditions and a growing preference for eating at home. Consumers view specialty foods "as a means to add excitement to their lifestyles. . .and as a healthful way to feed their families," the association says.

Ron Tanner, vice president of communications and education for the NASFT, says the survey's findings "portend a strong holiday season for specialty food retailers and manufacturers." He also notes that as much as much as half the annual sales of specialty foods are generated from Thanksgiving through New Year's Day, for dining, entertaining and gift-giving.

"Specialty food consumers cut back on buying in 2008 and 2009, but they always expressed a desire to return. Although consumers remain cautious," Tanner adds, "they are clearly making specialty foods a bigger part of their lifestyles."

Foodies Shifting Away From Low-End Brands Again

The five most popular categories of specialty foods purchased this year were coffee, chocolate, olive oil and other specialty oils, cheeses and cold beverages. In addition, 41% of those surveyed by the NASFT said they had purchased fresh or packaged specialty pasta this year, up from 32% last year, an increase the organization attributes to consumers eating at home rather than dining out.

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Of those polled, 18- to 34-year-olds were the most likely to purchase specialty foods. The No. 1 reason buyers of all ages gave was to treat themselves: 70%, up from 61% who indulged in 2009. And although 71% said they had purchased more private-label and store brands within the past year, only 49% said they would do so in the future.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, supermarkets are the biggest sellers of specialty foods, but farmers' markets were the fourth-most popular retail outlet, exceeding specialty food stores, which ranked sixth. Natural-food stores, such as Whole Foods Market, and mass merchandisers, such as Walmart and Target, ranked second and third, respectively.

Ethnically speaking, two-thirds of specialty food consumers bought Italian foods, while more than half bought Asian and Hispanic foods. Regional American cuisines, such as Cajun or Southern, were also strong sellers, and Mediterranean, Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines gained in popularity. The study found 25- to 34-year-olds were the most likely to purchase international foods. "They are at a life stage where they have experienced these foods in restaurants and are eager to prepare them at home," the NASFT says.

The survey also found that:

  • One in four total retail food dollars spent by specialty food consumers goes to specialty foods.

  • The average specialty food consumer watches 4.5 hours of food-related TV each week.

  • 35% of consumers buy food products that support charities, such as cancer research or local food banks.

  • 83% of specialty food consumers say family-food traditions are important to them.