Britain is increasingly becoming a nation of extremes, with the gap between the very rich and very poor, and the overweight and underweight, becoming wider every year - all of which has implications for the nation's food and drink industry, according to a new report from Datamonitor.
People in the UK have in general enjoyed rising levels of prosperity in the past five years and this trend is set to continue, despite uncertainty over the economy, according to the report, entitled UK Consumer Trends: A UK-specific New Consumer Insight. The number of people with more than £30,000 in readily disposable assets - cash, savings, shares, etc. - stands at 5.7 million, up from 4.8 million in 1997, and is set to rise by over 22 per cent to 7 million in 2007.
The growing number of well-off consumers is, however, accentuating the disparity of incomes in the UK. The number of people in low income groups is growing as the number in middle income groups falls and becomes either more well off or relatively poorer.
The rising levels of prosperity are breeding a new class of consumers with rising expectations about the quality of their lives and the spending power to facilitate achieving it, Datamonitor said. Consumers' spending habits reflect a willingness to put a price on their time, energy and peace-of-mind.
In the food and drink sector, for example, consumers spent £3.8 billion on speciality and gourmet products last year, a figure which Datamonitor claimed is set to rise to £5 billion by 2007.
But there are significant health implications to eating and drinking more, and the Datamonitor report shows that the number of overweight Britons continues to rise. In 2002, 28 per cent of the UK population was overweight or obese and the number is forecast to grow to 30 per cent by 2007.
At the other extreme, over 2 per cent of the population is classified as severely underweight, and is likely to rise 25 per cent to 1.5 million by 2007. The growth of these groups is at the expense of those who are either underweight or of normal weight, as both these groups are in decline. Of additional concern is the fact that this trend is not just limited to adults - there is increasing prevalence of these conditions among children.
Over 22 per cent of under 18s were either overweight or obese in 2002, a total of 2.8 million people, and this is set to rise over the next five years to reach a total of 3.1 million, representing an increase of over 10 per cent - figures which will do little to ease the concern of parents and lobby groups increasingly concerned about the way unhealthy food products are marketed to children.
The irony is that many UK consumers are also becoming more health conscious. UK consumers are more active than ever in self-managing their health either through personally curing themselves of ailments or in maintaining their health through supplementation. Expenditure on vitamins, minerals and supplements increased by over 250 per cent from £340 million in 1997 to £1.2 billion in 2002, while sales of functional food and drinks reached £429 million in 2002 compared to £324 million in 1997.
Changing lifestyles have also led to a reduction in the number of people eating three meals a day at regular times and in their own homes. Eating between regular mealtimes is on the rise at the expense of breakfast, lunch and dinner, with UK consumers on average eating 4.5 times a day.
Although 'proper' meals are still eaten more frequently than snacks, the margin between meals and snack frequency consumption is declining, according to Datamonitor. Snack consumption currently accounts for 42 per cent of all eating occasions and by 2007 this will increase to 43 per cent - a slight but continual shift away from regular mealtime eating.
On-the-go lifestyles are also driving out-of-home eating. In the UK, eating out of the home accounts for almost 32 per cent of all food occasions and is set to increase to 35.5 per cent by 2007.
Eating in the workplace is regular and increasingly frequent in the UK - a trend being driven by the growing irregularity and flexibility of working hours. Workplace eating is no longer centred on lunch, but also includes breakfast and early evening meal supplements, as well as substantial snacks. In 2002, the retail and foodservice value of workplace consumption was worth £10.1 billion excluding subsidised or free workplace catering. By 2007 this market will reach £11.5 billion.