BLENDS BECOMING A STANDOUT IN THE SPICE AISLE

NEW YORK -- The convenience trend sweeping the food industry is not only changing the way meals are prepared, but also flavored -- and consumers are finding solutions in the spice aisle through a growing number of spice blends, retailers and industry observers told SN.While the majority of meals are cooked under tight time constraints, consumers still want their foods to taste good. By combining two

NEW YORK -- The convenience trend sweeping the food industry is not only changing the way meals are prepared, but also flavored -- and consumers are finding solutions in the spice aisle through a growing number of spice blends, retailers and industry observers told SN.

While the majority of meals are cooked under tight time constraints, consumers still want their foods to taste good. By combining two or more spices, blends can provide a boost of flavor to familiar foods with minimum effort, they said.

"There's definitely more interest in spice blends, probably because there are more novices cooking and spice blends are easier to use," said Robertino Presta, vice president, Caputo's Fresh Markets, Addison, Ill.

Caputo's confirmed the trend through a recent in-store survey in which consumers overwhelmingly said they wanted more spice blends.

Information Resources Inc., Chicago, doesn't provide sales figures for the blend segment, but overall, dollar sales in food stores for the top 50 spice brands generated $1.1 billion for the 52 weeks ending Nov. 2, 2003, a 4.3% increase over the prior year.

"Spice blends continue to be the biggest growth area in the spice category because they offer an easy way to add variety to familiar foods," said Laurie Harrsen, director of public relations for McCormick & Co., Hunt Valley, Md.

John Corcoran, grocery category manager, Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., attributes blends' popularity in part to the growing number of recipes that call for a combination of spices.

"Many recipes that have come out in recent years call for some type of spice blend," he said.

The most popular varieties at Big Y are those that include herbs, such as lemon/herb and garlic/herb. But, while a few are selling well, others have been slow movers, Corcoran said.

When it comes to popular spice brands and flavors, a buyer with a wholesaler headquartered in the South reported success with Tony's Chachere's Cajun and Creole spices.

Cross merchandising comes into play with both single and blended spices. For instance, Duthler Family Foods, Grand Rapids, Mich., carries a line of Hispanic spices called Mi Castenita in a four-foot gondola in the produce section near a display of dried peppers. "The line ties in well with the Hispanic peppers," said Jon Duthler, owner.

At Caputo's, select spices are cross merchandised in the meat department, and the retailer has tried similar programs in produce.

"Cross merchandising definitely helps to spur extra sales," Presta said.

Big Y Foods has had success with cross merchandising in the perishables departments, according to Corcoran.

"I put shippers out on the sales floor during the year," he noted.

The wholesale source said all types of blends are having some degree of success. However, he voiced concern that some may eventually cannibalize sales of individual spices. For instance, he said if consumers repeatedly buy a garlic/parsley blend, they most likely will not buy garlic and parsley separately.

"With spice blends, you can fool yourself into thinking you're growing the category when you're not," said the buyer, who requested anonymity.