What’ll it take for people to actually buy vegan?

The beauty of Attest Investigates is that we can explore a wide plethora of subjects, from broad philosophical phenomena to deep topical specificity. Anything that’s epically un-answered, through to the simply interesting.

Say hello to Attest Investigates! A series where I use the Attest platform to test popular hypotheses and answer your burning questions.

As a trained scientist, I am obsessed with experimentation, empiricism and using data to make decisions. We’ll delve into all things consumer research, using a scientific analysis style to lift the lid on the most important unknowns for brands, as requested by you!

Introduction and hypothesis

In this edition we’re digging into some wonderfully gritty specificity. We investigate whether people’s supermarket buying behaviours are affected by the placement – the physical ranging in retailers – of vegan and plant-based products. 

The supermarket is the battleground where we base this edition of Attest Investigates. We find ourselves in the vegan section, often nestled awkwardly between fresh pastas and luncheon meats. 

I say ‘awkwardly’ – just how awkward is the vegan section? Would it feel less awkward, and the products therein more buyable, if they were scattered among the non-vegan items? Does mixing in vegan products make a ‘vegan choice’ just a ‘choice’? Or is the vegan section’s very awkwardness its raison d’etre – a way to make a statement and stand out in the crowd, rather than sink into the mire of humming, competitive chillers? 

Here’s our hypothesis: people would be more inclined to buy vegan products if they were ‘normalised’ by being placed alongside non-vegan products. 

Method

The submission for this edition of Attest Investigates came from the fantastic Vegan Society in the UK, but we wanted to gauge opinions spanning the Atlantic so we sent out two surveys. 

Take a trip over to the Attest dashboard to analyse and break down the results by demographics for our UK respondents and our US respondents. Have a play with the analytics and filters, to see what you find in the results – they’re fascinating!

For each survey we asked 500 nationally representative consumers about their behaviours and opinions when faced with vegan products in the supermarket. 

Results

Sit rep: the vegan section is the supermarket’s least visited 

When asked which of the key food sections of the supermarket they visit and how often, the vegan/plant-based foods section came bottom overall for ‘every time’ and ‘most times’ (only the deli counter in the UK came lower for ‘every time’). 

No great surprise, perhaps. While vegan products are surely increasing in popularity and market share, they’re still burgeoning. 

It’ll be super interesting to track vegan visitation over time to find out whether visits increase as awareness and education around vegan and plant-based options roots itself in people’s buying habits. 

A brief encouraging aside: the fruit and veg section is easily the most-visited in both countries, and less than 2% of people visit rarely or never. This is often because it’s at the front of the supermarket; a classic retailer tactic to ensure you arrive into a sense of ‘freshness’, into a busy area full of colours, textures and choice.

Non-vegans are more likely to buy when products are among non-vegan foods

We asked about people’s likelihood to buy vegan products and whether their placement next to other foods or in a dedicated section makes a difference. And we see a very clear trend. 

People who regularly buy vegan products would prefer those products to be in their own dedicated ‘special’ section; people who rarely buy vegan products are more likely to buy them when they’re among non-vegan products. And our results show this is the case in both the UK and the US.

For example, of those who regularly buy vegan products, 34% are more likely to buy when they’re displayed in a dedicated section – only 16% of non-vegan buyers said the same. Meanwhile, 23% of regular vegan buyers are more likely to buy when the products are next to non-vegan ones, compared to 32% of people who never buy vegan food.

Without getting too deep into the personality, profile, interest and behaviour differences between vegans and non-vegans, I find this really fascinating. I somehow expected vegan buyers to want maximum inclusion in the supermarket – that they’d want every opportunity to encourage others to join them in the vegan revolution, even if that means meat-free burgers sitting next to near-expiry, discounted Aberdeen Angus beef. 

Just my subjective musings, but I suspect a reason for non-vegans inclining towards inclusive displays is that these people simply don’t habitually visit the vegan section, and so the idea of visiting that section is somewhat at odds with their shopping patterns. Making vegan choices requires a conscious change to a new section, not just an everyday choice between similarly-placed products. 

What can food brands and supermarkets learn from this?

It’s surely not practical to fully cater for every aspect of vegan and non-vegan interests – there can’t be a dedicated vegan section AND the same products ranged among the non-vegan foods. That way madness lies* – why not have vegan and non-vegan lanes continuously winding around supermarket in the IKEA style, or different supermarkets altogether?

*I say this with no real supermarket physical design experience, so very happy to be advised that this would in fact be a totally viable option. 

Perhaps the answer lies earlier in the buying journey. It’s clear that people are open to buying vegan products, even if they haven’t actually made that choice often in the past. So there must be some education and awareness gaps that currently prevent them. 

Spreading the message of vegan products can only be a good thing – for manufacturers, supermarkets and the planet at large – but spreading the products seems to be a much more powerful way to expand vegan buying to new decisions and therefore new consumers.

This theory plays out in our data. We asked what would encourage people to buy more vegan products. For those who rarely or never do, the top two options were money-saving deals and better education around vegan options. There’s surely a massive opening here for supermarkets and manufacturers to team up and make sure people are informed and encouraged to buy vegan. 

Amazon makes ‘availability’ one of their core metrics; vegan products need to find ways to be more ‘available’ (or at least more obvious, more evident, and less ‘destination’) to have the chance to win over more consumers.

Overall the UK and the US gave encouraging factors the same rankings – except the UK placed ‘more variety of vegan options’ as their overall number 2 choice, usurping ‘better education’, which the US placed at number 2. 

Interestingly, although improved education was a key factor in both countries, guidance from supermarkets on vegan recipes placed last across both audiences. It seems people do want to gain knowledge on vegan products, but there’s work to be done to find out where and how they want to learn (and it’s clearly through self-discovery and convenience… not ‘being educated’).

A peaceful coda

While some differences between vegans and non-vegans have been laid bare here, there’s good news. Our data shows that the majority is open to compromise. The biggest single groups, among vegans and non-vegans alike, say they’d buy vegan products regardless of where they’re displayed – 44% in the UK and 47% in the US said this.

For this amiable majority, it might not be worth painting those vegan and non-vegan lanes just yet. 

Future scope

Tracking this over time (which, happily, you can do with the Attest platform!) would be really insightful. Finding evolving trends and factors towards vegan products would signal a huge gradual shift in people’s buying habits. 

It’d also be great to expand on the education and awareness points – how do people want to hear about vegan products, if at all? (I.e. it’s NOT from supermarkets!) What’s the best way for marketers to tempt them away from their non-vegan staples? (It’s NOT by expanding or promoting a stand-alone vegan section).

Conclusion

The supermarket trip is such an ingrained part of people’s daily lives that it’s definitely a fool’s errand to take habitual behaviours for granted. And while our data indicates stark lurking differences and fundamental drivers to address head-on, people are on the whole open to subtle changes in their supermarket experiences. 

As with many surveys asking what would encourage people to buy XYZ or ABC more, money – value for money and pricing perceptions – is the top factor. It’s notable that people who don’t often buy vegan placed learning more about vegan products as their number two ranked factor – they clearly want to find out more and show fantastic willingness to adapt their buying habits. 

It’s a long play, but brands must help consumers understand the benefits of their products. The opportunity for vegan products to win and grow in popularity is very clear, and this research aims to shine a light on some of the barriers to making that happen. 

The good news is that the barriers to people actually buying vegan and plant-based products are simple things to solve, and remarkably easy to implement… brands and retailers just need to see the opportunity and value, and placement/ranging is an evidently great way to open-up vegan awareness and choices to more people.

Jeremy King

CEO 

Jeremy founded Attest in mid-2015, following 9 years leading global teams across industries at McKinsey & Company. He holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, originally trained as a scientist with a focus on genetics, ecology and animal behaviour, and also helps to improve state primary schools with his charity work.

See all articles by Jeremy