Kernel of truth: can popcorn really hope to tackle crisps in the UK snack market?

Popcorn sales are rising fast, but why do people eat it? And does it have staying power? Elliot Gardner finds out more.


Popcorn is the fastest growing grocery product in the UK, according to recent market research data from Euromonitor. Brits eat twice as much as the next contending European nation, with only the US consuming more.

Popcorn sales have risen by 10% in 2017 to £152m, with sales doubling in value since 2013. Potato crisp sales still dwarf the popcorn industry by around £1bn, but crisp sales have been on a steady decline over the last three years, and with popcorn sales heading skyward, the question ought to be asked why it is that people are eating popcorn, and whether the popcorn industry could gain ground on one of Britain’s favourite snacks.

More than just a novelty?

According to GlobalData research, 31.4% of consumers in the UK say that the primary reason they eat popcorn is the desire for a fun novelty experience. The relatively bland-tasting base popcorn product allows manufacturers to easily add in an extremely wide variety of flavours. Gone are the days of choosing between sweet and salty at the cinema.

Propercorn is one of the UK’s favourite popcorn brands, taking pride of place in meal deal sections and snack counters in supermarkets across the country, and the variety of non-traditional flavours on offer are a driving force behind the brand’s popularity. Peanut butter & almond, sweet coconut & vanilla, and fiery Worcester sauce & sun-dried vanilla are just some of the offerings contributing to the company’s more than three million sales a month.

GlobalData analyst Veronika Zhupanova claims that this is something popcorn manufacturers can capitalise on; saying “the consumer need for fun gives manufacturers opportunities to be creative in their formulations, as consumers will pay attention to new ingredients and bold flavour combinations before all other attributes.” The novelty approach certainly works for some brands, just look at Kit-Kat’s approach in Japan, with Nestle reinventing the chocolate bar as a product with flavour combinations so weird that product has become a treat often gifted for birthdays and other celebrations, but this has to be considered the exception rather than the rule. Manufacturers placing themselves as a ‘weird’ impulse buy is a risky move that could lead to a short-term sales boom, but in the long-term could result in brands fading into obscurity.

The second most popular consumer motivator for popcorn sales, at 29.6%, was the desire for a treat. Many popcorn brands attempt to sell themselves as a healthy alternative to crisps and other snack goods, but based on this statistic, it appears as though these brands could well be wasting their breath. Zhupanova’s comments that “this preference for superior taste means consumers are highly likely to overlook health-aligned credentials.”

Popcorn might be the snack of the moment, but according to these statistics, if brands want to tackle the potato crisp giants, they’re going to have to take a long hard look at how those little kernels are marketed.