NAVIGATING TOWARD COLUMBUS

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Regional salty snacks are giving national brands a run for their money in this market.Unique merchandising methods, heavy promotional activity and a healthy economy make the Buckeye state's capital a prime target for snack manufacturers. Because the products are strongly supported by retailers, this city often serves as a test market for snack products.Additionally, Columbus has

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Regional salty snacks are giving national brands a run for their money in this market.

Unique merchandising methods, heavy promotional activity and a healthy economy make the Buckeye state's capital a prime target for snack manufacturers. Because the products are strongly supported by retailers, this city often serves as a test market for snack products.

Additionally, Columbus has one of the highest percentages of snack food consumption per capita, according to the Snack Food Association, Alexandria, Va.

During store visits to Kroger, Big Bear, Meijer, Cub Foods and Festival Foods, SN discovered why Columbus chains stand apart from other domestic retailers in the snack foods category -- each one gives local, regional and national manufacturers relatively equal shares of retail space.

But Ron Ratcliff, store manager at Lancaster Festival Foods, said consumer loyalty helps drive demand for local and regional brands.

He described the appeal of Conn's and Mike Sells, the city's two leading regional brands. Conn's makes its potato chip with bleached potatoes, which results in a very white chip. Mike Sells' potato chips have a distinctive flavor because they're fried in peanut oil. Both companies manufacture several types of snack foods.

During the holiday season, Ratcliff orders large tins filled with Conn's potato chips because his customers send them to their friends and family who have moved out of state.

Along with meeting consumer demand for local brands, each of the area operators takes a similar merchandising approach to displays, product placement and space allocation for snack foods. But format and collective target market differences help distinguish the chains from each other.

For example, Kroger and Big Bear cater to neighborhood shoppers who can afford to pay a little more for upscale, gourmet items. Meijer's freestanding format is similar to a supercenter. It targets consumers interested in one-stop shopping -- everything from clothing to food to gasoline.

Cub Foods and Festival Foods, an independent, fulfill the warehouse-style format. Corrugated shippers line the floors and form the foundation for endcaps. Here, quantity helps keep prices low, and price is the dominant attraction.

While the store formats are different, the strategies for getting consumers to buy salty snacks are not. Columbus chains customarily place their snack aisles near beverages like soda, water, beer and wine.

Soda, particularly store-brand soft drinks that offer the customer a better value, lends itself well to merchandising with snacks, said Larry Hood, director of merchandising at Big Bear Stores Co. here.

Others chains follow suit. In one of Meijer's stores and in a few Kroger's, endcaps adjacent to the snack aisle held soda. One Kroger even tied snacks into a Bacardi Breezer lobby display.

Retailers often use supplemental display spaces stocked with store or local brands to give snacks further exposure.

Kroger squeezes more snack space into its deli department. SN noticed store-brand tortilla chips, popcorn and cheese puffs -- different from the chain's standard private label -- merchandised in a cheese island.

Big Bear's Hood said new data shows customers are shopping supermarkets less frequently. Because of this, Big Bear is servicing customers by keeping the right items displayed in the perimeter using table displays. In addition, he said stores take care that items are well-stocked.

"Since customers are making fewer weekly trips to the store, it is imperative that profitable, high-turning items are merchandised in the perimeter of the store -- salty snacks is one of those items," Hood said.

To take full advantage of the impulse nature of snacks, Festival Foods also merchandises in the perimeter. "You want shoppers to have that opportunity before they fill up a shopping cart and realize they don't have enough money to buy snacks," Ratcliff said.

Some Meijer stores do the same, while others rely on endcaps. Between four and six endcaps in each of the stores visited by SN held snack items, one of which always contained private-label snacks. Columbus retailers generally use endcaps to promote new products or offer more variety. In addition to store brands, items like Frito-Lay's Baked Lays, baked tortilla chips and Sack-a-Snack displays occupied endcaps. Wherever there was an endcap of Frito-Lay products, a regional, store-brand, or lesser-known manufacturer was sure to follow. Again, grocers allocated comparable space to each.

Better-for-you products continue to be strong sellers, and retailers said they were looking forward to when Frito-Lay can supply enough Baked Lays to satisfy consumer demand. (Before its acquisition of Eagle's plants, Frito-Lay was forced to allocate specified amounts of product to retailers.)