Trouble Brews for the British Tea Time

Do British consumers no longer want a spot of tea? Apparently, they may be losing their thirst for the “Great British Tea Time,” according to London, England-based market research firm the Mintel Group, Ltd. While over two thirds (69 percent) of tea-drinking Brits agree that drinking tea is an important part of social occasions, over the past few years sales of the beverage have been in “hot water.”

Across the tea retail market in the United Kingdom, value sales have fallen by 6 percent from £699 million in 2010 to an estimated £654 million in 2015. What’s more, in volume terms over the same time period, sales have dropped by 22 percent, from 97 million kg to an estimated 76 million kg. Furthermore, Mintel forecasts that volume sales will drop to 68.7 million kg by 2020.

It seems that it is the standard cup of tea that is losing steam, with sales of ordinary teabags falling by 13 percent from £491 million in 2012 to £425 million in 2014. In comparison, sales of alternative teas have been continuing to gain strength. Between 2012 and 2014, sales of fruit and herbal teabags rose by 31 percent from £58 million to £76 million, whilst sales of specialty teabags rose by 15 percent to £63 million and sales of green teabags increased by 50 percent to £36 million.

Mintel’s research shows that many fruit and herbal tea drinkers believe in the mood enhancement qualities of these drinks with 43 percent agreeing they believe herbal teas can affect your mood. Meanwhile, 44 percent of green tea drinkers say they mainly drink these products for health benefits. In comparison, the top qualities that consumers associate with standard tea are traditional (60 percent), refreshing (43 percent) and comforting (42 percent).

Between 2012 and 2014, sales of fruit and herbal teabags rose by 31 percent from £58 million to £76 million. According to Emma Clifford, senior food and drink analyst at Mintel, “Standard black tea is struggling to maintain consumers’ interest amid growing competition from other drinks—held back by a rather uninspiring image. This has translated into the downfall of the tea category overall.” However, she noted that consumers are becoming more adventurous in their choice of tea, evidenced by the fact that sales of fruit or herbal teas, specialty teas and green tea continue to post impressive performances. “Reflecting a growing “foodie” culture in the UK, people are branching away from standard teabags and towards these more interesting alternatives.”

Declines in Biscuit Sales Impacting Tea

Whilst tea is an established partner for biscuits and cakes, Mintel’s research shows that falling sales in this area may be having repercussions on the tea market too. Indeed, UK volume sales of sweet biscuits fell from 451 million kg in 2009 to an estimated 413 million kg in 2014. Almost half (46 percent) of Brits who eat biscuits, cereal bars and crackers say they do so with a hot drink, yet two fifths (41 percent) say they don’t eat sweet biscuits more often because they are high in sugar.

Mintel’s research shows many Brits reach for a cup alongside a slice of cake or a biscuit—with a vast 86 percent of tea drinkers saying that tea is a good accompaniment to biscuits or cakes.

“It is widely accepted that tea is a good accompaniment to biscuits and cakes,” said Clifford. “Given the sugar scare, however, and that usage of such treats is in decline, these strong associations could have had a negative impact on the tea market.”

Whilst tea as a beverage is in decline, the Mintel report found that it has growth potential by tapping into the popularity of home baking. According to Mintel, three in 10 (30 percent) tea drinkers agree that tea can be a good ingredient to use when cooking or baking, rising to 38 percent of those aged under 25. Furthermore, it seems consumers are interested in other tea formats, with 34 percent of tea drinkers agreeing they would be interested in making their own iced tea and 29 percent agreeing that new formats of tea interest them.

Clifford noted that producers can seek to boost volume sales by encouraging people to use tea in less traditional ways, for example in cold drinks such as ice tea or smoothies and in cooking and baking. “Boding well for this is young people’s interest in such usage occasions, with scope for more companies to tap this interest by providing recipe inspiration.”

Despite the strain on the market, Brits do still have a warm place for a cup of tea in their hearts. Indeed, per the 2015 report, over half (54 percent) said they drank standard tea at least once a day. Men aged 16-44 are Britain’s biggest tea drinkers, with 80 percent drinking tea, whilst women aged over 65 are the least likely to consume the beverage, with three in five (61 percent) of this group doing so.

Finally, whilst the “Great British Tea Time” is traditionally an afternoon event, in terms of day-to-day use consumers are more likely to drink it in the morning. Three quarters (73 percent) of tea drinkers say they typically drink tea in the morning, compared to two thirds (66 percent) who drink it in the afternoon.

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