Consuming Issues: Porridge – a cereal thriller

Over the past two months press releases have been popping into journalists' inboxes with one recurring message: porridge sales have glooped into orbit. Manufacturers and retailers recorded rises of up to 70 per cent during the cold snap when shoppers sought a warming bowl for breakfast.

To nutritionists, porridge is the perfect start to the day; full of fibre, vitamins and minerals. To consumers, too, porridge is a good buy, working out cheaper than less filling cereals made by the likes of Kellogg's or Nestle.

Consumers who pulled oats from the shelves when snow blanketed the ground, however, are unlikely to abandon their daily bowl of Weetabix, Special K or Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, the three best-selling cereal brands. Despite the recent surge, porridge accounts for just a fraction of the breakfast cereal market.

A new report from market researchers Mintel shows that 90 per cent of cereal we pour in our bowls comes into the category known as RTE, or ready-to-eat. These brands require no more effort than pouring milk on to a serving.

Overall, people in the UK spent £1.2bn on ready-to-eat cereals last year, and the biggest category was "kids" cereals such as Coco Pops, Sugar Puffs and Mega Munchers, taking a whopping 43 per cent of sales.

The second biggest category was "naturally good" cereals such as muesli from Jordans, Dorset and Alpen, and other "healthy" brands such as Special K. They made up 30 per cent, ahead of adult "favourites", such as Corn Flakes, which accounted for 19 per cent.

By contrast, hot cereals like Ready Brek and porridge had sales of a comparatively small £134m. So why are do these lag so far behind? Firstly, manufacturers have failed to do much to promote the healthiness and cheapness of porridge in recent years, instead relying on older customers who can be bothered to heat up oats with milk or water.

Secondly, companies like Kellogg's have spent, and continue to spend, millions of pounds advertising their brands, including offering up an array of cartoon characters, gifts and other promotions to command the attention of the most important target group of consumers; children.

Coco Pops' advertisements on bus shelters and television recently suggested children try the 35 per cent sugar cereal as an after-school snack. That angered health campaigners and parents because it seemed to contradict Kellogg's public commitment to work with the Government to reduce child obesity. And it is this new focus on health that could turn porridge from an also-ran into a winner.

Mintel forecasts sales of ready-to-eat cereals will continue to increase, rising by 14 per cent to £1.69bn by 2014, but it predicts hot cereals will start to catch up, rising by 19 per cent to £160m over the same period.

According to Mintel, porridge would become much more popular if it was easy to prepare. Future launches, it suggested, "could include the introduction of more ready-prepared porridge ranges with the milk already mixed in. These could therefore be quickly heated in a microwave, and would suit on-the-go breakfast consumption and the on-the-go packs could be sold together with a spoon."

It added: "A wider selection of these chilled porridge formats could be stocked in the other grocery multiples, especially in their convenience store formats such as Tesco Express or Sainsbury's Local."

So, with Britons unable, or unwilling, to spend a few minutes stirring oats in a pan, the market will have to adapt to their laziness. As a result, the breakfast of the mid-21st century could look like it did a century earlier: porridge.

Heroes & Villians

Hero: Kelham Island Tavern

Although pubs sometimes serve up over-priced microwave meals at prices dodgier than the old ale pulled from their pumps, that charge can't be levelled at the Kelham Island Tavern in Sheffield. For the second year running, the Victorian inn has been named National Pub of the Year by Camra.

The real beer campaign's 110,000 members assessed "all the criteria that make a good pub" including the quality of the beer, atmosphere, décor, customer service, and all-round value of the pub visit.

The Kelham has 10 hand pumps, two of which dispense a mild and a stout. It appears it also tried quite hard to win. The landlord Trevor Wraith said: "Winning last year only made us work harder to meet and beat people's expectations, with people travelling from all over the UK to visit us." The cream on top of the tale is that the pub was rescued from dereliction as recently as 2002.

Villains: Home sellers

The Office of Fair Trading's study into home sales this week found that almost a third of homeowners, 32 per cent, felt the fees they were charged by estate agents for selling a home were "slightly" or "very poor" value for money. However, the OFT also found that almost two-thirds of sellers, 64 per cent, failed to negotiate an agent's commission. So if sellers can't be bothered to negotiate a good deal, they can't complain if they pay over the odds.