s are developing more cosmopolitan tastes, and that is helping spice up sales at the spice rack in supermarkets. Retailers and wholesalers are seeing greater demand for spices used in Chinese, Mexican, Indian and Italian dishes, particularly those who operate or supply stores in larger urban areas, where there are typically higher concentrations of ethnic groups and other consumers who increasingly are being exposed to ethnic foods.
Interestingly, the merchandisers said the trend is almost completely driven
by consumers, rather than being propelled by manufacturers' new products or extensive promotion at the retail level.
Several retailers did name one outside force behind the increased demand: "In the Kitchen With Rosie -- Oprah's Favorite Recipes," a cookbook written by the chef who cooks for Oprah Winfrey. The book is a best seller and has received considerable publicity on Oprah Winfrey's television show.
That book, along with other contemporary cooking guides, emphasize a greater variety of ethnic spices to jazz up dishes that are low in fat, retailers said.
"I took that cookbook and went through every single line, and I have gone through and made sure that I had something on the shelf, and if I don't, we are getting it within the next two weeks," said Margue Hunt, merchandiser-buyer at Haggen Inc., Bellingham, Wash. "I've had too many calls and there is a lot of interest there."
Whether tied to the popularity of Oprah or not, the public interest in zestful cooking has gotten a relatively quick boost.
"All of a sudden, we've been having big requests for Hispanic spices," said the spice buyer at a Midwestern cooperative wholesaler. "We've recently brought in a line called La Cocina de McCormick, which obviously is a Hispanic spice. In fact, we had to go to McCormick and set up a deal for these spices because people were driving the stores crazy trying to get them."
In addition to sales growth in "true ethnic" spices from the jar section, this buyer said envelopes and package mixes also are selling better, and they have more of a mass appeal. "We are seeing gains in items like fajita and guacamole mixes," he said.
Hispanic spices are arguably the most popular segment, judging from retailers' comments. "The bulk of our growth has been in Hispanic spices," said Jeff Savage, grocery buyer at Randall's Food Markets, Houston. "We are beginning to address that fact and make the spices more visible."
Other growing areas are Cajun spices, and spices to be used in curries, said retailers, again making a link between the dishes and cuisines featured on television shows about cooking and the patterns of consumer demands in their own stores.
One buyer from a leading California chain said that while, as a whole, ethnic spices are steady at best and not prone to dramatic increases, after a popular daytime show featured a segment on Cajun cooking, "we had a ton of people coming in and asking different kinds of Cajun spices, because they saw them on television. That was unusual in this market, because Cajun saw its peak a few years ago and has kind of gone down to a little niche."
The ethnic emphasis is apparently not a universal trend, however. While calls to operators on the East and West Coasts and in the Southern border states elicited enthusiastic responses about the segment, about half a dozen retailers and wholesalers in the Midwestern heartland said ethnic-oriented spices were not a growing factor in their neck of the woods.
Those companies, including Dahl's Food Markets in Iowa, Houchens in Kentucky and Nash Finch's division in Nebraska, tended to operate in rural and smaller urban areas, where ethnic influences on cuisine apparently have less of an impact on shopping habits.
But in markets where the taste for the exotic is more prevalent -- and where Oprah apparently wields great influence -- ethnic spices are hot. Here are highlights from the comments of buyers and merchandisers.
Jeff Savage grocery buyer
Randall's Food Markets Houston
Here in Texas, the increase in ethnic-oriented spices is due to the fact that the Hispanic market is growing. And in our stores we are beginning to address that fact and make the spices more visible.
We are finally understanding the category and the consumer is coming to expect us to have more of these ethnic spices.
The bulk of our growth has been in Hispanic spices. However, we have seen an increase in Oriental spices and mixes. But I don't think that's coming entirely from the Oriental populace. It's more of a cross-cultural trend; across the board, people are becoming aware that the product is there and they are beginning to use it for the first time at home. There's been a minor increase in manufacturer support. We have seen an increase there, but at this point I don't think it's where it needs to be.
Brad Priday grocery buyer
Malone & Hyde division of Fleming Cos. Sikeston, Mo.
Within the last six months to a year, we've really had an increase in ethnic-oriented spices. I can't give you a percentage of the increase, but we've seen more Mexican, Chinese, Hispanic, all of them. People have been eating in Chinese and Mexican restaurants and are now making that food at home with these seasonings. This really has been a consumer-driven trend. It hasn't evolved out of anything retailers have done. They haven't done anything special as far as advertising or merchandising. However, because of the increased demand, we're getting more deals from manufacturers on these items.
Lori Latta buyer
Trader Joe's South Pasadena, Calif.
We have an Italian seasoning blend, and we are adding a pasta seasoning blend, and we are adding a curry and we have a saffron, which is used in Spanish rice and paella. We've had the Italian for about a year, the saffron has just been added and the curry will be in about a week or two. The saffron is doing very well and we have a really good price on it. Most stores sell a quarter or half a gram, but we are selling three-quarters of a gram at $2.99. In most other places, saffron would be $6 or $7 for a small jar.
Our spices are private label and packaged in glass jars. We advertise the spices through our flier.
Margue Hunt merchandiser-buyer
Haggen Inc. Bellingham, Wash.
In our organization we have seen a large increase in spice sales. We have seen a lot of customer requests for things that we might not currently carry, but are available in the area in other retailers.
A lot of our customers call me up and say that they were traveling in Chicago, New Orleans, Taiwan, etc., and say that 'they sell X spice there. Can you carry it?' and then we have to go out and try to get it. We always get the spice, whether we will carry it on our shelf or we are just going to get it for our customer; we go out of our way to do that.
There is one other thing that is really driving sales, and it is the "In the Kitchen With Rosie -- Oprah's Favorite Recipes" cookbook, with Oprah on the cover. This cookbook is No. 1 on the best-seller list now.
I took that cookbook and went through every single line and I have gone through and made sure that I had something on the shelf, and if I don't, we are getting it within the next two weeks. I've had too many calls and there is a lot of interest there.
Right now, I think that not only "Rosie" but a lot of cooking shows are basically telling people to reduce their fat and not give up taste by using spices. The spices are going to make it tasty and edible and they are going to feel better about taking out some of the fat.
What works the best is if we cross-merchandise the spices. We currently are doing a barbecue theme, so we have a display with barbecue sauces and related items. In that display we will incorporate spices, extracts or whatever could be used in combination. It is wonderful for us because it brings a lot of profit to a display that may not necessarily be highly profitable.
If you just expect to sell it off your shelf, you will reap the benefits, but there are a lot of dollars to be had if you put a suggestion in front of the customer's face, who is already looking for that barbecue sauce.
Ron Amos buyer
Winn-Dixie Stores Charlotte, N.C., division
The ethnic spices are doing a fair business now. We came out with a private label and we've added space for that. We haven't started advertising yet. We just got it on the shelf and put a great price on it; we're just waiting to see what happens. There's a lot of people out there who aren't using spices currently, and we think they will now because we've got something new for them.
Tom Floyd buyer
Kienow's Food Stores Milwaukie, Ore.
We've seen increases in Hispanic-type items, which I attribute to a population shift. A lot more Hispanics are moving to this area.
We merchandise the spices with displays, special sales and cross-merchandising. The margins on spices average 30% to 35%.
We haven't added any new Hispanic spice items, however. We carry a pretty good variety now and we're careful about our inventories. There really isn't any seasonality in spice sales. I just see them constantly growing throughout the year.
Jim Jones buyer
Ingles Markets Black Mountain, N.C.
If ethnic spices are a growing market, I can't tell. It might be in some areas, but not in our area. This is kind of a mountainous region and we don't have a whole lot of ethnic food here. I can't see any big changes in sales of the segment.