POTENT PORTABLES

As harried consumers put the pedal to the metal, supermarket retailers are promoting convenient breakfast foods that can be thrown into a briefcase and eaten at the office.Microwavable oatmeal, cereal bars and frozen egg sandwiches are among the items that can be easily taken to and prepared at work.The Mad Butcher in Pine Bluff, Ark., is on the cutting edge of this trend, already cross merchandising

As harried consumers put the pedal to the metal, supermarket retailers are promoting convenient breakfast foods that can be thrown into a briefcase and eaten at the office.

Microwavable oatmeal, cereal bars and frozen egg sandwiches are among the items that can be easily taken to and prepared at work.

The Mad Butcher in Pine Bluff, Ark., is on the cutting edge of this trend, already cross merchandising the fast-food breakfast category.

"We have Breakfast Days in January, where we tie all these foods together, and we have been very successful," Roger Burks, senior vice president, told SN.

"We display frozen and dry foods together," Burks said. The promotion usually runs for a week.

Sales of Tony's breakfast sandwiches increased 22% over the previous year, according to Burks. This increase represents part of a national trend in which more people are eating breakfast outside the home.

The number of people dining at their desks has doubled in the last five years, according to the NPD Group, Rosemont, Ill., a research firm that tracks national eating trends. Since the 1980's, NPD has sampled 2,000 households yearly to get comprehensive data on what people eat in a two-week period.

"We tell [food manufacturers] that there's a theme of foods that are hand held and easy to transport, and easy to prepare," said Arnie Schwartz, NPD's director of business development.

Many items that fall into this category are appropriate not only for work, but also for school. These kid-friendly foods include items that can be eaten directly out of the package, without a knife or fork.

Toaster pastries, breakfast and granola bars and bagels all experienced significant growth over the last five years, according to NPD. Instant oatmeal is also on the uprise, Schwartz said.

Consumers who purchase grab-and-go breakfasts typically come from two-income households. They're also from traditional, affluent households, where one parent is at home or working part-time.

"Affluent families index higher than two-income families, but both are heavier-than-average eaters of these types of foods," Schwartz pointed out.

Supermarkets can benefit from this trend by merchandising different types of breakfast items in a central location, said Schwartz.

"These foods are in many different aisles and may need to be clustered together as fast, on-the-go items," he said.

Kevin Copper, vice president of merchandising at Sterk's Super Foods in Hammond, Ind., was not surprised by the NPD group's findings.

"It fits in with today's lifestyle. People are trying to find quicker meals," he said. "They're interested in supermarkets and restaurants that can make it easy to eat on the run."

Steve Holdman, director of grocery at Buehler Foods in Jasper, Ind., agreed. "More people are after convenience. That's why there's so much emphasis on home-meal replacement," he said.

Most retailers told SN that, because of the growth of the category, they're giving more attention to breakfast items.

For example, Buehler is promoting all breakfast items -- frozens, dairy and grocery -- for one week this month in its 29 stores. Though Holdman would prefer to merchandise them together, he can't because he doesn't have a portable freezer.

Retailers told SN that they've noticed sales increases in the categories cited by NPD.

Granola and cereal bars are doing very well at Ukrop's Super Markets in Richmond, Va., said Caroll Obaugh, senior director of procurement. Sales of the SnackWell brand have increased about 14%, while Kellogg increased 12% over the last year.

"Kellogg Nutri-Grain is doing very well," he reported. "Granola bars don't do as well. It looks like there's been a switch and [customers have] gone over to the better-tasting, healthier [cereal] bars."

Sales of toaster pastries have also increased by 14%, Obaugh said. Oatmeal, especially the Quaker brands, is another strong performer.

Obaugh will promote breakfast items whenever "we get our hands on a promotion," and will use a gondola display on an end aisle.

Kienow's Food Stores in Milwaukie, Ore., promotes breakfast foods when they are on deal, said Ed Werstlein, vice president of purchasing and merchandising.

Other types of quick breakfasts that can be prepared easily are doing well, including fresh and frozen bagels, microwavable oatmeal and frozen breakfast sandwiches.

"Swanson's Great Starts [breakfast sandwiches] seem to be gaining momentum," he said. Burks of Mad Butcher also sells Swanson frozen breakfasts, along with Tony's, Jimmy Dean, and Rudy's Farm brands.

"They are all doing well. In fact, they've expanded to the family packs, though the most popular size is the two-pack. There are different varieties, like sausage and biscuit, and sausage, cheese and eggs," he said.

Fast-food chains have done such a good job selling consumers on the sandwich breakfast, explained Burks, that people now like to pick up a similar product at the supermarket. Buying it at the supermarket, though, gives them the option of taking it to work and cooking it in the microwave.

At the same time, fast food and frozen sandwiches cost about the same, Burks noted. Burks observed that "bagels really took off this year." Toaster pastries are popular at his stores, with Kellogg and Nabisco selling well. He was pleased with manufacturer efforts to help stores promote these items.

"They are giving us good allowances so we can run [sales]," he said.

The grab-and-go breakfast boom is encouraging some retailers to add more stockkeeping units. For instance, Buds Shop & Save (a part of Homstead Enterprises) in Newport, Maine, increased its frozen breakfast section by 30% when the store was reset a year ago. "Before, we didn't have the variety. Now we have 18 or 20 feet for breakfast, not counting breads," said Ken Gilmore, assistant manager. Frozen bagels are also doing well for Gilmore, with Lender's leading sales.

"It's the young people on the go who buy these foods," Gilmore offered. "We try to run promotions off the front end," he said. Gilmore is currently merchandising Quaker Instant Oatmeal at the front end.