KROGER, GROUP GIVING SOYFOODS A HEALTHY PUSH

WASHINGTON -- Bolstered by improvements in taste and reputation, including a new federally approved health claim, soy products are poised to take center stage throughout the supermarket this April as retailers help celebrate Soyfoods Month.The organization representing the soy industry is testing the product's newfound celebrity with an official promotion that carries the theme, "Soy Foods! Good Taste,

WASHINGTON -- Bolstered by improvements in taste and reputation, including a new federally approved health claim, soy products are poised to take center stage throughout the supermarket this April as retailers help celebrate Soyfoods Month.

The organization representing the soy industry is testing the product's newfound celebrity with an official promotion that carries the theme, "Soy Foods! Good Taste, Good Health." The Soyfoods Association of North America, based here, is working with Kroger Co., Cincinnati, in developing a blueprint for Soyfoods Month that it will be able to build upon year after year.

"Since it's our first time out, getting someone with a national presence, with the number of stores they have, was very important to us, since we're in the process of developing a permanent national promotion," said Tina Nelson, co-chair of the Soyfoods Month effort for SANA, and category manager for Soyco Foods, a division of Orlando, Fla.-based Galaxy Foods.The other co-chair is Dee Munson, president of Food Professionals, a consulting firm based in Vashon Island, Wash.

According to Nelson, Kroger warmed to the idea immediately and agreed to have all of its 2,200 stores in all divisions participate. The retailer is using the official logo on all circulars, as well as artwork, to support the unified theme. For SANA and the fledgling campaign, Kroger provides just the right proportion of size and scope to test the effectiveness of the group's marketing materials and the logistics of organizing the event.

"We wanted to get our feet wet this year, rather than try to get all supermarkets involved at once and then not be able to support them," continued Nelson.

Already, the group has learned some valuable lessons working with the giant retailer. For starters, Kroger agreed to disburse merchandising kits to individual stores from its many warehouses, a move that streamlined distribution and freed SANA to concentrate on fine-tuning the promotion.

"They slotted it as an item in their warehouses, instead of us having to deliver them individually to stores," said Nelson.

Kroger's plans include a heavy emphasis on demoing soy-based products in all departments, including produce, meat, dairy and Center Store [see related story, page 39], she said, adding that SANA is responsible for organizing the events. Every soy item is being marked with labels and danglers affixed to shelf channels. Acrylic pockets hold the SANA-produced "Soy Solutions," a five-day menu planner that contains recipes and nutritional information. Kroger's commitment to the promotion, as well as the soy category, can be seen in the way it approaches merchandising year-round, Nelson said.

"I think their whole philosophy is differentiation," she said. "You could put the meat analogs in the freezer case, but it doesn't point anything out to the consumer, and gets lost in the shuffle."

As they build their presence in traditional supermarkets, soy products are increasingly being merchandised in fresh departments, Nelson noted:

Produce: edamame (fresh, green beans); dry soybeans; black soybeans; roasted soybeans (soynuts); tofu (in numerous textures, styles and flavors); and tempeh (cooked soybean cakes).

Meat: soy meat alternatives, or analogs, are usually manufactured to mimic specific meats, poultry or seafood products in taste, texture, color and form. These include beef- and sausage-style crumbles and grounds; deli slices; burgers and sausages; entrees of stew, chili or pasta; and taco fillings. Also, most retailers merchandise miso in this department, a Japanese-inspired fermented soy product most widely available as rice, barley or soy miso.

Dairy: Aside from shelf-stable dairy alternatives in aseptic packaging, more and more soy milk products are available in traditional gable cartons. Soy is also used in alternatives to traditional animal-based yogurts, cheeses, sour cream and desserts.

Right now, consumers are most accepting of soy-based beverages and veggie burgers, "because they seem the least scary," she said. Nelson added that the key to expanding the category is sampling, since tasting an item can erase all the reluctance.

While SANA is working specifically with Kroger in developing a national program to use for future campaigns, retailers large and small are participating in a month-long promotion of one sort or another.

Mustard Seed Market & Cafe, Akron, Ohio, just completed a soy-tasting program in connection with the two-store independent's well-known taste fairs, which are held on a regular basis.

"Given our history as a natural-foods retailer, every month is soy month in our stores," said Phillip Nabors, company president. "Soy is a very big seller with our customers."

Mustard Seed merchandises its soy products in four main areas, he said. In the dairy aisle, customers find not only beverages, but meat analogs. Many retailers sell the animal-protein substitute in their self-service meat or deli cases, but Nabors calls those areas a bad spot.

"People who want analogs are usually vegetarian, and don't want to go to the meat department to buy it. It doesn't make sense," he noted.

Tofu and related items are sold in produce as a meal solution, again in deference to vegetarians. "This is bundling products for their convenience," Nabors said.

There are also soy products in the frozens section, as well as in the department dedicated to dietary supplements. Even in the upstairs restaurant in both units, soy is on the menu. Nabors described a popular reuben sandwich made of thin-sliced, browned tofu, soy (or regular) cheese, sauerkraut, Thousand Island dressing and rye bread.

No matter which way it's sliced, soy is also getting support from the Food and Drug Administration, which just last October approved a health claim associating consumption of four servings of soy a day with a reduction in blood cholesterol and coronary heart disease. As a result, SANA officials expect consumer awareness to increase significantly over the course of the month-long campaign, when Kroger and other retailers erect signage promoting soy's newfound popularity.

When the Kroger promotion is completed, SANA and its manufacturer members will review the sales and promotion data to determine what elements of the trial campaign performed best, and how to build on the successes for April, 2001.

"We hope that next year, we'll take our experience from this year, and put together an even more aggressive program and involve other chains in a nation-wide effort," said Nelson.