COOKIES!

Shoppers today want to have their cake and eat delicious cookies too.Despite the healthy trend and ongoing media hoopla about America's widening girth, it seems that the citizenry is not willing to trade taste for nutrition or fewer calories in their cookies and crackers.Five years ago, Nabisco targeted the weight-conscious, health-oriented consumer with the SnackWell's low-fat cookie and cracker

Shoppers today want to have their cake and eat delicious cookies too.

Despite the healthy trend and ongoing media hoopla about America's widening girth, it seems that the citizenry is not willing to trade taste for nutrition or fewer calories in their cookies and crackers.

Five years ago, Nabisco targeted the weight-conscious, health-oriented consumer with the SnackWell's low-fat cookie and cracker line. Sales soared and consumers eagerly gobbled up $490 million worth of SnackWell's during 1995, according to a recent New York Times article.

But SnackWell's sales have been languishing, as fickle consumers skipped past bland low-fat brands to reach for more indulgent taste treats. Nabisco responded by reformulating and reintroducing SnackWell's -- with more fat and better taste.

Some pundits have speculated that overworked, stressed-out adults are pampering themselves with rich foods, reinforcing the old saw that "stressed" written backwards spells "desserts."

In the cookie category, sales data seem to give this theory credence. For the 52-week period ended May 24, 1998, after the private-label cookie category, Nabisco Oreo cookies and Nabisco Chips Ahoy! were the top sellers in supermarkets, while Nabisco's Ritz crackers were No. 1 in the cracker segment.

Harold Berthold, Food Emporium's director of grocery merchandising, the Bronx, told SN that "Specialty cookies such as the Westbrae brand are selling well, as are some national brands such as Keebler, Nabisco and Sunshine. SnackWell's came out like gangbusters, but started to drop off." Yet, Berthold remains optimistic that SnackWell's will get back on track with its new, better-tasting product line.

All of Food Emporium's 40 stores promote cookies and crackers on a weekly basis, depending heavily on displays and endcaps to stimulate impulse buying. Cookies and crackers are stocked together in the same aisle, with locations varying according to the size and layout of the individual store.

Berthold said that in-store demos help promote cookie and cracker sales, as do national ads, coupons, displays and the use of endcaps. He is currently working on a margin of between 30% and 35% in the cookie aisle.

Although it's too early to tell if companies like Nabisco can win back low-fat customers by putting flavor first, a source at a Massachusetts-based supermarket chain who did not want to be identified reported that SnackWell's have been moving briskly.

Lester Crawford, grocery supervisor at White's Fresh Foods in Johnson City, Tenn., also reported a strong performance from the SnackWell's line.

Dave Jenkins, vice-president of National Eating Trends for the NPD Group, Rosemont, Ill., told SN that for the 52-week period ended February 1998 show that consumption of full-fat cookies was up to the level it had been in 1992 or 1993, before the introduction of "better-for-you" alternatives. Moreover, consumption of ready-to-eat cookies across the board is at an all-time high.

Steve Dirnberger, assistant grocery buyer/merchandiser at Cub Foods, Stillwater, Minn., a division of Supervalu, merchandises cookies and crackers together in the same aisle. Typically, this section can be found next to the rice cakes, in an area that usually encompasses one side of an aisle, averaging 76 to 80 feet long.

In keeping with national trends, the fat-free category showed some decline while traditional favorites such as Oreo cookies and crackers such as Saltine, Townhouse, Ritz, Cheez-It and Air Crisps have been trending up, Dirnberger said.

Children's favorites include Oreo cookies and Goldfish crackers, while adults prefer Pepperidge Farm and Archway brand cookies. Cub's margin goal is 18% to 20%.

Cookies and crackers are promoted on a weekly basis using a variety of advertising vehicles, including newspaper ads, an in-store Buyer's Guide and coupon books. Buy-one-get-one-free promotions have also been very popular. Endcaps are used for in-store deals.

"All manufacturers support the category with a combination of ad and deal funds," Dirnberger said. "Coupons are very effective in the Minneapolis/St. Paul market for this category." To rev up sales, Cub is promoting snack crackers more frequently.

At Leeker's Family Foods, a small chain based in Wichita, Kan., grocery manager Andy Kraus reported that the low-fat selections are not as popular as they used to be. Traditional favorites such as Oreo cookies and Sunshine Cheeze-It crackers are first choice with the rural customers who frequent his stores.

Kraus does about 30% of his business with AWG's private-label Best Choice and Always Save lines, which are priced at least 50 to 60 cents lower than the national brands. Leeker's works off a margin of 20% to 23% in the cookie and cracker category.

Cookies and crackers are merchandised together in the same aisle, directly across from the potato chip section. Leeker's dedicates several endcaps exclusively to cookies and crackers on an ongoing basis. The chain works with manufacturers to promote the category through special events, tie-in displays and promotional items.

Recently, the store hosted a promotion that used Archway cookies to make ice cream sandwiches. The event was held for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, with a portion of sales proceeds going directly to the charity.

As far as trends are concerned, Kraus pointed out that while low-fat cookies and crackers seem to be a fad, Leeker's private-label saltine crackers, priced to sell at 59 cents a box, fly out of the store all winter long. "Price drives the category," noted Kraus.

Whole-wheat cookies don't move quickly off the shelves at Cooke's Food Store, Cleveland, Tenn. Instead, customers are satisfying their salt cravings with Nabisco's Saltine crackers. Co-manager Bill Moore said that in addition to the regular favorites like Nabisco cookies and crackers, sugar-free and salt-free selections are growing in popularity.

Cookies and crackers are merchandised together in the back of the store at Cooke's. Nabisco products take up 8 feet of aisle space while other brands are stocked in endcaps or on special displays. Promotional sales and buy-one-get-one-free offers have been successfully used to move the category.

Cooke's health-conscious customers satisfy their cookie cravings with sugarless varieties of Canadian-manufactured Bud's Best cookies, Windsor (by Beatrice Foods) or fructose-sweetened Fifty 50 cookies in peanut butter, vanilla, chocolate chip, butter, coconut, fudge-brownie and oatmeal, said Moore. Sugar-free items are popular but expensive, he noted.

Whether it's fat-free, sugar-free, salt-free or super-indulgent and sinfully rich, the outlook for cookies and crackers remains bright, because snacking has become part of the average consumer's lifestyle.

According to Information Resources Inc., Chicago, for the 52-week period ended June 21, 1998, when food, mass and drug channels were combined, cookies were the No. 4 category in packaged goods, with sales of $4.4 billion, while crackers ranked at No. 11, with sales of $3.4 billion. These statistics excluded all dairy, deli and frozen categories.

Meanwhile, to satisfy both consumer craving and conscience, Nabisco, Parsippany, N.J., has added Mint Creme, Caramel Delights, Double Chocolate Chip and Chocolate Peanut Butter Chip to the SnackWell's cookie line, along with Zesty Cheese Crackers, which have 50% more fat per serving. The new SnackWell's cookies will have as much as 4 grams of fat per serving, much more than the old formulation, but still less than full-fat cookies.