HOT BREADS OF CONTENTION

Americans are moving away from their white-bread ways. While they haven't forsaken the standard loaf of white bread -- not by a long shot -- consumers are trying their hand at specialty breads to jazz up their sandwiches.Retailers contacted by SN reported that "light" breads also are continuing to make headway into the health-conscious diet, and private labels still rule.Indeed, according to A.C.

Americans are moving away from their white-bread ways. While they haven't forsaken the standard loaf of white bread -- not by a long shot -- consumers are trying their hand at specialty breads to jazz up their sandwiches.

Retailers contacted by SN reported that "light" breads also are continuing to make headway into the health-conscious diet, and private labels still rule.

Indeed, according to A.C. Nielsen, Schaumburg, Ill., private-label breads brought in slightly more than $1 billion in supermarkets for the 52-week period ended Dec. 10, 1994. Taking in $253.4 million, Wonder Bread was a distant second for the same period.

Nevertheless, private-label dollar sales dropped 3.8%, while the unit volume dipped 7.5%.

And who's taking that business?

"From our numbers, specialty breads are having a greater impact in the category," said Rick Hagan, direct-store-delivery manager for Norfolk, Va.-based Camellia Food Stores. "That's where the business is coming from.

"As far as trends go," said Hagan, "it's the variety breads like wheats, dark wheats, rye breads, and all of those. Regular white bread is still No. 1, but a variety of breads, like stone grounds, have made a lot of inroads into the category."

"Along with variety breads," Hagan added, "the sub roll bread segment is growing as well. Everybody's getting into a Subway [sandwich shop] type roll; people are looking for other items besides the plain old, traditional sandwich.

"If there is anything in the category that is on fire, it would be your specialty breads -- the oats, grains and different flavors, the sub rolls, hard breads," said Tradd Newton, DSD category manager at Piggly Wiggly Carolina Co., Charleston Heights, S.C. "But we still do real well with our private label."

Darryl Martin, grocery buyer at R&M Foods, Hattiesburg, Miss., said, "We're doing a pretty good job with most of the variety breads, rolls and buns. But white bread is still king."

Likewise, Ron Dittrich, associate grocery buyer at Handy Andy Markets, San Antonio, said, "Specialty breads are continuing to pick up sales, but we are still a white bread market."

However, increased grocery competition has caused white bread to take on the distinct form of a lowball item, he added.

"In this market, the predominant retailer, H-E-B [Grocery Co.], has pushed the price down so low it's become a football item," Dittrich said of the 24-ounce, white, private-label loaf of bread.

"That pound and a half will typically be about a 10% item. But any other bread segment is very profitable. You're probably looking at about 25% to 30% on the higher ends."

Dittrich's store managers are asking for the higher-end products with greater frequency.

"We are starting to pick up additional specialty bread sales in the category with items like Pepperidge Farm and Oroweat. We always had a following for these products, but we're starting to see more and more of our stores, which typically didn't have a need for these products, call in and say, 'I'd really like to have Pepperidge Farm in this store.' "

Harry Bernardino, grocery buyer at Foodland Supermarket, Honolulu, also reported having increased sales of such breads as Oroweat and Country Hearth, but private label sells best. And it's no accident. "We make a serious effort to make sure that our controlled-label bread is what we want the consumer to buy. We advertise it every week.

"We carry Western Family," said Bernardino, noting that the label distributes king-size white and wheat bread, as well as English muffins, to Foodland.

Richard Bellows, coordinator of retail pricing at Scolari's Food & Drug Co., Sparks, Nev., used the word "huge" to describe the role private label plays in the chain's bread sales.

"We have our own private-label grain breads. And generally we heavily promote both the normal white and the grains on a weekly basis," he said.

R&M Foods' Martin said Campbell Taggart's Colonial breads are favorites in his market. "Down here, we have Colonial Iron Kids. It does real well." So, too, does private label, which is priced at least 50 cents lower in most supermarkets than the national brands, he said.

To grasp the best of both worlds, retailers recommended offering consumers private-label specialty/variety breads.

"Of course, we don't have a large amount," said Camellia's Hagan. "We have a wheat and a split-top butter, but we need to get into more variety breads."

One specialty segment that has seen a proliferation of products is the lighter variety.

"We just recently reset our bread racks to enlarge the space devoted to the light breads," said Darrell Dyer, DSD coordinator at John C. Groub Co., Seymour, Ind. "Consumers have really taken to them; people seem to want the healthier items."

Dyer added that unlike regular breads, which show big sales bumps when promoted, the light breads perform equally when promoted or not promoted. "It's more consistent than the other bread products."

The seasonality of breads also remains consistent, he said. During the summer months, retailers make more room for buns to accommodate those summer outdoor chef types and build up the hot roll section during the fall and holiday months.

Although Scolari's Bellows noted that more light bread products are being offered, space restraints dictate that retailers adjust facings and space allotments rather than expand the section in stores.

Despite the apparent toehold of the health-oriented bread products, some retailers said their day in the sun may be fading.

Newton of Piggly Wiggly pointed out that "the lights don't seem to be as on fire as they used to be. I think people are either pretty loyal to the breads they have traditionally liked, or are turning to the whole wheats and grains that are popular now."

The new label laws may have affected the sales of light breads as well, said Camellia's Hagan, who said cavalier use of terms like "cholesterol-free" and "fat-free" has been toned down.