A Dollop That Packs a Wallop

March 12, 2010
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With consumers fleeing their local bistros and learning to cook from the Food Network and in-store cooking demonstrations, it’s no wonder that sales of condiments are doing so well, especially on the private label side.

Nothing fuels a do-it-yourself attitude like a recessed economy. After fleeing their local bistros to save a few bucks, many Americans are stocking up on groceries and taking shelter in their kitchens. And from the Food Network to cooking demonstrations and courses hosted by local retailers, consumers are finding plenty of inspiration to help them fall in love with their kitchens all over again.

It’s no wonder that sales of condiments are doing well, especially on the private label side. Data from Chicago-based Information Resources Inc. show that private label realized strong gains in most condiment categories during the 52 weeks ending Dec. 27, 2009 (supermarkets, drugstores and mass market retailers, excluding Walmart, club stores and c-stores). (See the table.)

Interestingly enough, condiment performance didn’t look so good in the recent past. According to “Sauces, Dressings and Condiments – US,” a report from Euromonitor International, Chicago, sales performance of sauces, dressings and condiments was sluggish between 2004 and 2007 because Americans were dining out more frequently. And when they did eat at home, many consumers relied on the convenience of ready-to-eat meals and other meal products requiring little involvement in preparation.

But now that these consumers are watching every penny they spend, dining out frequently might not be as feasible.

Alfons van Heerwaarden, president of Parnassia Food Inc., Jersey City, N.J., believes retailers have seen these difficult times as a tremendous opportunity to increase their selection of private label condiments.

“In the economic downturn, we have seen retailers mainly focusing on getting more value[-tier] store brand products in their stores,” he says.

A Little More Confidence?

But even with the rise of value-conscious consumers, van Heerwaarden notes that some consumers are willing to spend a little more in the grocery store to get a gourmet meal experience at home. And with the hope of an economic recovery on the horizon, spending confidence could rise even more. To be prepared, van Heerwaarden believes retailers should build up their premium tier of condiments and offer destination-type products that draw customers away from the national brands.

“Focusing only on value store brands isn’t enough,” he warns. “You also want your consumers back in the store for premium brands. Remember: The national brands are also available in the competitors’ stores!”

Retailers also will want to make sure their premium-priced products are premium in quality. van Heerwaarden says customers are not fooled easily - they can taste the difference between premium and inferior ingredients.

“Ahold’s premium Simply Enjoy was not very successful in the condiments category - offering low quality for premium prices,” van Heerwaarden says. “More successful is Delhaize’s Taste of Inspiration, offering products and prices that match the perceived quality. A&P’s Via Roma [is] another success story.”

Mike Beller, private label account manager for Robert Rothschild Farm, Urbana, Ohio, says his company doesn’t even mess with anything less than premium when formulating condiments for a retailer’s private label program. Susan Meiswander, director of product development for the company, says the most popular flavors in Robert Rothschild’s premium condiments are superfruits. She notes that fruits such as pomegranate, acai and blueberry can be used to flavor sauces, dressings and even mustards.

“It’s just a matter of the flavor profiles you can bring together,” Meiswander says. “It’s really not limiting to one [condiment] category.”

Kim Maalouf, marketing director for Robert Rothschild, adds that the classic mixture of sweet and savory remains a winner with consumers.

“We’ve seen that trend for years, but definitely … people still like that combination of the two,” she says. “We just introduced our Peach Coconut Mango Habanero Seafood Sauce. So it’s got that nice, sweet flavor with the peach and the mango, but it’s got that kick of the habanero.”

Ain't That a Kick!

Consumers seem to love a spicy kick in their foods. According to the Euromonitor report, many Americans are seeking out spicy and ethnic flavors in the store as they try to look for ways to recreate the restaurant experience at home. In particular, the report says, spicy flavors appeal to older consumers, whose taste buds are becoming less sensitive with age.

Mike Klanac, senior director of marketing for The Carriage House Companies, Fredonia, N.Y., certainly sees more consumers looking for hot and spicy flavors when choosing a ketchup, mustard or mayonnaise. For a national brand example, he notes that Reckitt Benckiser recently put out a new French’s light mayonnaise line called Gourmayo, which includes spicy flavors such as Chipotle Chili and Wasabi Horseradish. Retailers might want to take such spicy products into mind when expanding their own mayonnaise selection.

As for ethnic flavors, van Heerwaarden says Parnassia’s Mezzini line of Mediterranean condiments recently was made available for U.S. retailers’ private label programs. The line already has had much success under the private brands offered by Albert Heijn, an Ahold banner in the Netherlands.

“We offer a complete two-tier range - a mainstream store brand and a more premium store brand,” van Heerwaarden says.

He adds that the mainstream tier offers products such as sundried tomatoes, fire-roasted red peppers, black olive tapenade, tomato bruschetta and more. The premium tier offers more unique products such as Kalamata and Anchovy Tapenade, Olive and Grappa Bruschetta, tzatziki and more.

Also on the Mediterranean condiment side, Beller believes the greatest innovation from his company is shelf-stable hummus.

“The fact that we brought shelf-stable hummus to retail is a major accomplishment for this company,” he says. “And it’s high-quality hummus - very good flavor profiles and very good ingredients.”

According to the Euromonitor report, hummus is becoming more and more popular because of its position at the intersection of the gourmet, ethnic and health trends. The product contains healthful fats and is a good source of protein for vegetarians or those limiting their meat consumption.

Also undergoing a health-conscious change is ketchup. According to an industry expert with a Midwest ketchup producer who requested anonymity, some consumers are concerned about ketchup producers that sweeten their products with high-fructose corn syrup (HCFS). He notes that more manufacturers are developing all-natural ketchups using sugar instead of HFCS.

What a Glass

Naturally, if consumers want a healthier product, they often want a healthier package, too. Many consumers want packaging to be reusable or recyclable. Fern Bennett Phillips, chief marketing and sales officer for Portsmouth, N.H.-based The Lollipop Tree Inc., says her company sticks to glass for its condiments, which offers both reusability and recyclability.

“Retailers should avoid innovative packaging that is less sustainable,” she says. “Innovation to achieve sustainability is one thing, but innovation for innovation’s sake does not work anymore.”

Phillips adds that glass is especially important if a retailer is looking to give a premium product a premium-looking package.

But Klanac warns that if you’re a retailer looking to package a value-tier condiment, you need to keep things basic. Consumers on the hunt for value brands more than likely will not be looking for an ornate package design.

But that doesn’t mean consumers won’t be paying attention to labels and graphics. van Heerwaarden believes an attractive label strongly boosts shelf appeal. He says A&P does a good job drawing in customers with the labels on its Via Roma products, which feature black-and-white photographs of native Tuscans laughing and enjoying life.

Beller adds that labels with high-contrast graphics and large print always work well to grab consumers’ attention.

“Certainly the higher the contrast and the [bigger] the graphics, the better it is going to pop up off the shelf,” he says.

To get a condiment to “pop up off the shelf,” retailers also could use a bit of creative marketing. Maalouf notes the importance of offering tags and labels on the container that tell the customer the different ways in which the product can be used.

“We formerly had a store here on the farm,” she says. “You could see consumers - they will look at the products and spin that jar to find out what to do with it.”

Serving suggestions and recipes also could be printed on placards and in-store flyers. Phillips believes such marketing tools are useful in cross-promoting condiments with other items as well.

“Consumers are looking for fun, new, innovative food pairings, and providing recipes in circulars, recipe cards on-shelf and alternate recipes online will boost sales for all sides of the ‘pairings,’” she says. “A private label condiment can be used in a recipe with a cheese from the same line, or a cracker or even bread and cereal!”

If retailers opt to distribute flyers, coupons and the like, they must make sure the marketing tools do not look cheap and unprofessional, van Heerwaarden warns.

“In-store promotion is often done by people that are unfamiliar with the product, [making] a waste of resources,” he says.

van Heerwaarden says they might cost more money, but publications such as Hannaford’s fresh magazine can offer customers a high-quality reading experience that features excellent recipes and other information customers find useful.

Still, many retailers do not have deep pockets when it comes to marketing store brands. van Heerwaarden says that if a retailer wants to market on the cheap, it should stick with its Web site and social media tools such as Facebook. Retailers could use such digital platforms to share recipes and product promotions with their customers. In return, customers could offer valuable comments on what they like and dislike about certain products. The process requires little money and effort on the retailer’s part, and it helps the retailer develop a closer bond with its customers.

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