William Cowper would be intrigued by what is going on in the aisles of stores across the country. The 18th century English poet penned the popular phrase, “Variety’s the very spice of life.”
And with sets seasoned with premium spices, bold ethnic flavors and imaginative blends, the offerings have never been so multifarious. As experimental consumers embark upon taste adventures, innovative offerings are helping boost sales.
IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm, reported that dollar sales of seasonings and spices were up 6.3% during the 52 weeks ending Oct. 30, 2016 across the multi-outlet geography that includes supermarkets, drugstores, mass market retailers, military commissaries and select club and dollar retail chains. Unit sales were up 3.1%.
“Customers are really interested in more bold, international flavors and blends,” Brooke St. John, the grocery buyer at five-store Andronico’s Community Markets, which is being acquired by Safeway and will soon transition to the Safeway Community Markets banner, said. “People are looking to find something different, and the thing they’re turning to is those bold and ethnic flavors.”
Adventurous spices like harissa and cardamom have gained momentum at Andronico’s as home chefs create curries and other flavorful dishes that represent a range of cuisines. Sales of spices at the retailer are up 6% vs. last year, St. John said.
“We also see a lot of people looking for paleo spices, which is interesting because most spices are in their truest forms paleo,” she added. Certain spice blends also appeal to followers of the diet consisting only of foods that cavemen ate. Paleo-friendly spcies St. John is a fan of include Flavor Gods’ Everything Spicy Seasoning, Jamaican Jerk Seasoning, Taco Tuesday Seasoning and Dynamite Seasoning.
Andronico’s shoppers also gravitate toward brands like Morton & Bassett, which markets premium culinary spices in natural and organic varieties.
At Seattle-based PCC Natural Markets, an 11-store consumer-owned co-op that merchandises spices in bulk, shoppers are keen on consuming spices for medicinal benefits, said grocery merchandiser Scott Owen.
“Spices with health benefits — like turmeric, cinnamon and garlic — are all up [in sales] for us, and continue to grow in popularity,” he said.
PCC touts that turmeric is high in trace mineral manganese and helps process fatty acids and cholesterol and that cinnamon is an excellent source of manganese and a very good source of fiber, iron and calcium.
“The health aspect is driving some of the interest and growth” in spices, Denise Purcell, head of content for the New York-based Specialty Food Association, said. “Turmeric has really exploded in popularity on its own, not only as a spice but in all kinds of items.”
Purcell related that consumer appetites for spice blends are not just influencing their buying in the spice aisle but also across grocery categories.
“Specialty spices are a lot about taste adventure, experiencing spices and more intense flavors,” Purcell said. “You’re seeing these specialty spices in chocolates and in sodas marketed to adults who have moved away from the sweet sodas.
“I think you see some consumers who like chocolate and will try a chocolate with an interesting spice in it before they just delve into a whole untried spice. They just want a different chocolate so they try it with a different flavoring, doing some experimentation and that draws people in a bit.”
Interest in small-batch specialty spices and artisanal blends is also burgeoning, noted Purcell.
“These are not mass-marketed spices in general. They’re ethnic spices and seasoning blends,” she said. “Sea salt is a great example and very popular as people try to stay away from processed foods.”
Interest in more exotic sea salts like Pink Himalayan, Hawaiian Red and Black Lava is growing as well, Purcell said.
Mainstream consumers are also being exposed to and delving into organic spices.
Sales of natural and organic spices were up a whopping 26.2% across conventional multi-outlet retailers during the 52 weeks ended Oct. 30, 2016, according to Chicago-based SPINS.
Maria Brous, spokeswoman for Lakeland, Fla.-based Publix Super Markets, said that organic spices are more accessible as traditionally conventional spice companies transition to the organic space.
McCormick & Co. recently introduced organic Gourmet Seasoning Blends with healthy ingredients such as chia, flax and matcha in varieties including Citrus Chile with Chia Seasoning and Matcha Green Tea with Ginger Seasoning.
Consumers are also turning up the heat with hot spices, such as cayenne, crushed red pepper and chipotle, with sales up 30% over the past three years, according to McCormick spokeswoman Laurie Harrsen, who cited IRI data.
Sriracha flavors in particular are popular at Publix, added Brous.
Flavors by region
The regional appeal of certain spices is also drawing consumer interest.
Purcell noted that there is “growing interest in more ethnic cuisines in general and specific regions of certain countries. Maybe it’s an undiscovered area that has unique local flavors in places in South America, Cuba, Singapore or India with authentic flavorings.”
Retailers can help aid shoppers’ flavor exploration by calling out and even organizing spices by their regional origin in the international aisle.
This past fall, Andronico’s began doing so by displaying its ethnic spice selections in two locations: the standard spices and seasonings shelves and as a part of the international food shelves.
St. John says that while it’s too early to make a judgment on how dual placement has impacted sales, the merchandising has benefitted shoppers.