HANDS ACROSS AMERICA

The demand for quick, convenient food has been a boon for the frozen handheld-snack category.Items like pocket sandwiches, burritos and other ethnic sandwiches; breakfast sandwiches; pizza snacks; poppers; and hors d'oeuvres have experienced substantial -- and in some cases even double-digit -- dollar volume increases, according to data from Information Resources Inc., Chicago.Sales of frozen appetizers/

The demand for quick, convenient food has been a boon for the frozen handheld-snack category.

Items like pocket sandwiches, burritos and other ethnic sandwiches; breakfast sandwiches; pizza snacks; poppers; and hors d'oeuvres have experienced substantial -- and in some cases even double-digit -- dollar volume increases, according to data from Information Resources Inc., Chicago.

Sales of frozen appetizers/ snacks jumped 10.6% to $373 million for the 52-week period ended Dec. 7, 1997, while sales of handheld entrees (sandwiches), excluding breakfast sandwiches, increased 2.7% to $754 million in the same period.

Pizza snacks and pocket sandwiches are leading the category, according to the majority of retailers polled.

Erika Wilgenburg, spokeswoman for Spartan Stores, Grand Rapids, Mich., noted that pizza snacks, pocket sandwiches and cheese sticks showed the most growth over the last year, while Roger Burks, senior vice president at The Mad Butcher, Pine Bluff, Ark., said smaller pizzas posted a 14% increase.

"We've seen a drastic change in the last year," Burks said. "We've seen more pouches and breakfast items."

Save-a-Lot, St. Louis, experienced "significant growth" in the past two years in all frozen-snack categories, said David McDaniel, vice president of grocery procurement. Handheld pocket sandwiches are the fastest-growing item, he said.

"In addition, we recently developed two varieties of private-label pocket sandwiches," McDaniel explained. "The success of the snack category has offered us the opportunity to promote on an in-and-out basis many of the frozen lunch/breakfast sandwiches and snack items, such as jalapeno [poppers] and bite-size pizza snacks."

Sales are up by 3% at Food Circus, Middletown, N.J., with pizza and breakfast snacks leading in sales, said Lou Scaduto, director of frozens and deli.

Russ Hahn, buyer/merchandiser for frozen food at Scolari's Food & Drug, Sparks, Nev., agreed that pizza snacks, like Totino's pizza rolls, do very well, along with poppers and hot bites and stuffed pocket sandwiches.

"Hot bites and poppers have increased across the board," he said. Pastry Pouches from Red Baron have also increased, largely because of strong marketing programs, he added.

Poppers from Anchor Foods have done very well at Scolari's, which also sells poppers under its HyTop private label.

In addition, Hahn has seen no increases in breakfast sandwiches, and has lost some sales on Swanson's Great Starts, while he's discontinued Weight Watchers breakfast sandwiches altogether.

Kevin Copper, vice president of merchandising for Sterk's Super Foods, Hammond, Ind., differed from most retailers, saying he's seen minimal increases in frozen snacks. But the best sellers for him are burritos and pocket sandwiches.

According to IRI, Totino's pizza rolls are the No. 1 appetizer, with about $100 million in sales. Sales of Totino's pizza rolls are up 2.2%, though unit sales are down 3.3%

Bagel Bites come in second, with $66 million in sales; and Farm Rich appetizers and snack rolls hold third place, with almost $22 million in sales.

In the handheld entree category, Hot Pockets is the leader, with $173 million in sales, a 9.3% increase. Unit sales are up 9.7%.

Lean Pockets are next in line, with $63 million in sales, up 2%. Unit sales are up 1.6%. Croissant Pockets hold third place, with $53 million in sales, down 8.4% in dollars and 9.1% in units.

According to retailer assessments, frozen snacks are consumed mostly by young people.

"The age group is 18 to 40 years old. Snacks are quick and easy to fix. Mom buys them for the kids as an after-school treat," said Burks of The Mad Butcher.

Studies indicate the targeted consumers are children to young adults, who consume these products as in-between meal snacks, said McDaniel of Save-a-Lot.

Wilgenburg at Spartan said consumers of snacks are families with teens, people aged 16 to 25, and young couples.

Hahn noted snacks always do well during the Super Bowl season as well as the winter holidays.

For Super Bowl Sunday, Hahn promoted Poppers, SuperPretzels, churros, burritos and pizza. Endcaps were used to highlight many of the items.

Food Circus also used endcaps for Super Bowl promotions, according to Scaduto. At the same time, snacks are often cross merchandised with items like mustard and sauces, which people use as dips for their hors d'oeuvres.

Snacks appear in different areas of the frozen-food case, depending on the retailer. Some strive to keep them in one place, while others tend to break them out by category.

Save-a-Lot, due to its limited-assortment format and space constraints, merchandises snacks in a single location of about 10 feet. The stores also use end-aisle coffin displays.

Spartan also displays snacks in one location, usually in two-door sets, with some stores using three-door sets.

Burks said snacks occupy an average of 8 to 12 feet, but they are merchandised in more than one area: stuffed sandwiches and pizza appetizers are with pizza, while breakfast items are stocked in the breakfast section. Ethnic snacks are merchandised in their respective categories.

At Food Circus, snacks fill about two doors, but they also appear in different sections of the frozen-food aisle. Copper of Sterks said snacks generally fill one door, with the placement of the door varying from store to store.

Burks promotes snacks about twice a month, and he also uses bunker cases and endcaps and small freezers in smaller stores. Hahn promotes snacks once per quarter.

"When it comes to private label, I promote every six weeks," he said. He also noted that he's done eight different ads for Anchor poppers since last April.

Save-a-Lot is an every-day-low-price retailer, but the chain does offer frequent in-and-out promotional programs. Spartan promotes snacks every week, said Wilgenburg, and stores use endcaps when available.

Retailers predict the category will continue to explode. "We'll see this category continue to grow, as long as the space is allocated accordingly," said Wilgenburg.

"As long as the quality of these products stays high and they keep the variety, [the category will grow]," Burks added.