RETAILERS NEED TO THINK BEYOND ATKINS: EXPERT

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Low-carb diets may be down, but they're not out. Indeed, there's still plenty that retailers and manufacturers can do to capitalize on consumers' interest in low carb -- and healthy eating in general.That was the conclusion of Scott Specker, associate client director at ACNielsen, Schaumburg, Ill., who shared sales data at the recent National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Low-carb diets may be down, but they're not out. Indeed, there's still plenty that retailers and manufacturers can do to capitalize on consumers' interest in low carb -- and healthy eating in general.

That was the conclusion of Scott Specker, associate client director at ACNielsen, Schaumburg, Ill., who shared sales data at the recent National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association conference here.

In a follow-up interview with SN after the event, Specker said retailers could do more to call attention to products via signs in categories recommended by the Atkins or South Beach diets. Likewise, they need to look at their shoppers' dieting habits more broadly as single-focus diets, such as low carb or low-fat, mature and evolve into more of a mainstream, healthy eating regimen.

Specker drew a parallel to Hispanic-aimed marketing, noting additional information is needed for shoppers in the store.

"Just as it's not enough to create bilingual signage, it's not enough to put low-carb labels everywhere," he said. "People who are trying to lose or manage their weight are doing much more than limiting carbohydrate intake. Our research shows that there may be larger opportunities with consumers who are simply trying to limit their portion sizes."

In an October 2003 survey by ACNielsen, nearly 60% of respondents reported they were dieting in some way, with only 8.8% following the Atkins diet and 28.9% following a diet of their own design. Indeed, there are signs the Atkins craze has peaked: 19% of respondents to a separate ACNielsen survey, conducted during the same period, reported someone in their household had been on Atkins, but isn't anymore.

While growth of frozen meat, nuts and peanut butter sales accelerated in the second half of 2003, when ACNielsen reported a spike in media coverage of low-carb dieting, other low-carb categories like cheese, eggs, frozen shrimp, canned fish and lunch meat appeared unaffected by the Atkins craze, its data showed.

For example, sales of fresh eggs declined 1.0% in the 26 weeks ended Jan. 24, after declining 0.3% in the 52 weeks ended April 19, 2003. Sliced, refrigerated lunch meat sales declined 1.1% in the 26 weeks ended Jan. 24, and 0.6% in the 52 weeks ended April 19, 2003. Cheese sales rose 2.6% in the recent period, down from a 2.9% growth rate in the 52 weeks ended April 19, 2003.

Explaining the lack of strong store sales growth across all Atkins-friendly categories, Specker hypothesized that increased egg consumption may only be affecting restaurants. Other factors could be negative press coverage and a degree of public backlash over the Atkins diet, as well as the emergence of other healthy eating trends.