Food Reviews
Category Review: Olives and Relish

Relish the thought

November 27, 2012
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If the hit TV series Mad Men has taught us anything, it’s that the swinging ‘60s were a work-hard, play-hard kind of era, replete with afternoon cocktails to fortify oneself for the rest of the day and into the wee hours.

Rarely an episode seems to go by when one or another character isn’t downing a dry martini, the ubiquitous green olive bobbing in the drink.

The '60s may be many decades removed, but the steadfast olive has separated itself from those halcyon days of three martini lunches and made a name for itself in its own right.

“The most interesting trend we’re seeing right now is the popularity of the gourmet stuffed olives on the olive bar, or in retail sizes such as 12-ounce jars and deli cups,” says Cheryl Growvogel, marketing director for Happauge, N.Y.-based Castella Imports, thanks in large part to Americans’ desire to lead healthier lifestyles, starting with what they put into their bodies.

Packed with good fats and vitamins, and touted as an essential part of the ever-popular Mediterranean-style diet, olives fit the bill precisely. And an August report on condiments from Chicago-based Mintel Group Ltd., notes that olives and relishes “benefit from appearing as a healthier, and even fresher, option than some of the other condiments segments. The utilization of vegetables, such as cucumbers, cabbage, and peppers, and the fact that some of these offerings are available in the refrigerator section (rather than being solely shelf stable) aid in this… The increasing premium, natural, and refrigerated condiment options across segments may be a means of growing interest among consumers looking for healthy food options.”

Gourmet olives are going beyond the classic pimento, and being stuffed with everything from nuts to garlic cloves to cheese to gourmet onions, combining new flavor profiles to meet consumer demand.

But, Growvogel says, “the most popular olives are the ethnic olives that people identify with.”

She adds that kalamata olives are the most popular single olive because of their status as easily identifiable within and outside the Greek community. And in response to consumers ever-broadening palates and desire to try new foods and flavors, Castella rolled out new antipasto blends, and peppers stuffed with garlic and herbed cream cheese.

BY THE NUMBERS

According to the Mintel report, pickles, olives and relish top the condiment category leaderboard with 26.1 percent of condiment sales.

“The high sales performance of the segment is likely due to the large array of products that fall within it, as well as the specialty nature of some of the products,” the report states.

That’s good news for olives and relishes overall, but sales for these products over the past year have been trailing. According to Chicago-based SymphonyIRI Group, sales for olives for the 52 weeks ending July 8 were down 3.7 percent for the category as a whole, and down 2.4 percent for private label, to $462.9 million and $224.8 million, respectively.

The relish segment saw a 1.4 percent decline for the same time period, though private label relishes felt a stronger sting, declining almost 4 percent during those weeks, to $39.4 million in dollar sales.

Though the numbers have slightly dipped, there is a wealth of opportunity for private label olive and relish producers to grab more of consumers’ dollars.

“Brands have not gained enough strength in the category to be a ‘preference’ versus just another offering,” says Doug Palmer, senior vice president of Argo-Sevilla USA. “Customers see olives as a commodity, and most of the time make their shopping decision for olives in the store. Store brand olives are the perfect ‘single source solution’ for the olive category.”

Palmer also notes that retailers can drive sales through continuous cross-promotion.

“Olives are not a ‘destination’ category, so it’s important retailers continue to raise the awareness of olive usage through their websites, recipes and in-store merchandising,” he says.

Additionally, with consumers still cautious about the economy, private label can tap into that across the olive and relish spectrum, with continued development of value or premium products.

“In-home entertaining and dining has grown, and all labels have enjoyed growth,” Growveogel says. “Private label is becoming increasingly common in retailers across all categories, and consumers can rely on a standard they are familiar and comfortable with.”

LOOKING AHEAD

As consumers continue to hunt for new products to spice up their lives, and in-home dining stays steady, the olives and relish category has the chance to grow. The Mintel report does note that consumers will return to dining out more as the economy improves, and condiment sales inevitably will decrease, even if just slightly.

Thus, it’s imperative that retailers and manufacturers make an effort to hold on to the shares of the category they have while gaining new consumers.

Mintel forecasts continued, conservative growth of condiments through 2017 with category sales reaching $10.7 billion.

And if private label lines can grab some of that share? Retailers and manufacturers certainly relish the thought.

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