In a market valued at €140 billion, the consumption of food and drink in the European workplace provides manufacturers with very real opportunities to create products that meet three key criteria - quality, convenience and health.
A new report from market analysts Datamonitor highlights how the crumbling of the traditional lunch hour - due to more flexible hours, increasing part-time work and generally looser schedules - has led to the increasing demand for suitable snacks.
Consumers nowadays are often as interested in a supplement to a hurried breakfast or a late-night snack to keep energy levels up. According to the report, throughout the working day, workers will eat between two and three times a day, and drink on about six different occasions. Consumers in Germany and the Netherlands are more likely to eat three times than twice, while the French and Italians eat less often.
"Working patterns have changed in recent years. Even on average working days, a large midday meal is no longer a common option. Instead, snacking throughout the day is becoming more popular - partly due to the increasing presence of microwaves and fridges in the modern office," said Andrew Russell, Datamonitor consumer markets analyst and author of the report.
As with all eating habits, cultural differences to food can also be witnessed in the workplace. In most countries, consumers are equally likely to snack in the morning as in the afternoon, but in France, the Netherlands and Spain, morning snacks occur less often than afternoon snacks. This is due to concerns over diet, shorter working hours, and a greater than average attachment to traditional mealtimes.
The Datamonitor report stressed that snacks will be the highest growing consumption occasions over the next five years (by value), with afternoon snacking leading morning snacking. The breakfast occasion will reduce in value, as the number of consumers who eat breakfast at all on a workday decreases. By 2007, workplace food consumption will be worth over €100 billion across western Europe.
Confirming previous reports, the Datamonitor research suggests that the UK consumer is leading the way in spending on food and drinks for the workplace. In comparison, the French, Spanish and Italians are much more likely to choose restaurants and cafés, making a full-blown social occasion out of lunch, while the Germans, Swedes and Dutch prefer canteens as a functional and practical solution to the problem of eating at work.
Job-type also affects how consumers will eat. Datamonitor identified five different job types: senior deskbound (managers and professionals); junior deskbound (clerical and call-centre); manual indoor (manufacturing); manual outdoor (construction, agriculture and fishing) and on-the-move (transport and travelling sales representatives).
Each working environment offers different opportunities. For example, senior deskbound workers have the freedom to snack when they wish, but have higher expectations of quality from their food. Manual indoor workers generally work to a set timetable, and are more likely to use canteen facilities or vending machines to provide them with a quick snack.
Datamonitor found that all consumers rate the quality of their food and their enjoyment of it as important, but senior deskbound consumers have the money to spend on obtaining this. Higher quality ingredients, meals based on fashionable cuisines and an emphasis on enjoyment at work will attract higher levels of spending from these consumers.
To compete with food service offerings, prepared meals aimed at the workplace have to offer restaurant levels of quality - the added convenience of "desk dining" is the main attraction for consumers while the main barrier is the loss of the sense of social occasion inherent in restaurant or even canteen dining.
But health plays second fiddle to quality and convenience, reports Datamonitor. And all workplace consumption food and drinks have to meet these requirements. Quality is relatively easy to obtain - convenience is a more complex issue. It is affected by the physical restraints of the workplace environment - limited 'table' space for example - limited access to means of preparing food and limited space for mess. The time taken to prepare and eat a meal is also an aspect of convenience - consumers will invest extra time for benefits such as a hot meal, but all workplace consumption food must be quick to eat.
Food reigns above drinks in the workplace stakes. Datamonitor predicts that overall, workplace consumption of food is worth almost €100 billion. Lunch makes up the lion's share of this market at €79 billion. Lunch includes everything from hot ready meals to salads and is the most expensive occasion. Although eating breakfast at work happens less frequently than snacking, the higher cost of breakfast food means that this is a more valuable occasion than either afternoon or morning snacking.
Manufacturers and retailers who can tap into the needs of the consumer at work, through innovative products, can expect to glean a slice of the €140 billon action.
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