RETAILERS SEE GOOD POTENTIAL IN LABEL LAW

ST. LOUIS -- Nutritional labeling has the potential to be a real plus for the in-store bakery department.That was the general sentiment of retailers interviewed at the annual convention of the Retail Bakers of America held here earlier this month, just weeks before the federal government's new labeling law goes into effect. Although some bakery executives said the nutrition information on bakery packages

ST. LOUIS -- Nutritional labeling has the potential to be a real plus for the in-store bakery department.

That was the general sentiment of retailers interviewed at the annual convention of the Retail Bakers of America held here earlier this month, just weeks before the federal government's new labeling law goes into effect. Although some bakery executives said the nutrition information on bakery packages may scare some shoppers away from treats they haven't realized were high in fat, such as muffins, the law, effective May 8, will give many bakery products a new and healthy image. In these health-conscious

1990s, that quality stands to help boost sales, retailers said. While the labeling law has many gray areas when it comes to requirements for baked goods sold in in-store bakeries, many of which are prepared or finished on-site, once the confusion is cleared up, the benefits should start being felt, retailers said.

"It'll increase sales overall, because right now many consumers don't know that a lot of bakery products are good for them. "For example, people think bread isn't a healthful product, but that's not true at all. It'll do a lot for items like bread and rolls and bagels," said Steve O'Donnell, plant manager, central plant bakery, H-E-B Grocery Co., San Antonio.

O'Donnell and others who were interviewed as they made their way down the aisles of the exposition hall, also commented that the law will work in their favor because the labels tell it like it is. "Now we'll have an equal playing field. Before now, some manufacturers made claims that might not have been true, and some played the portion-size game. "But the law is very specific about those two things," O'Donnell said.

Some said they see nutrition labeling as another customer service and expect their customers to see it that way, too.

Of the nine retailers polled, none said they would make changes in their product mix because of the labeling law. One, however, said that it would hinder her flexibility and might limit the number of suppliers she uses because "every time you change an ingredient, you have to change the label."

And most commented that the start-up costs for analyzing formulations and installing labeling equipment will create a temporary dip in the bottom line.

More than one retailer said stores would suffer another related cost, increased staff education. They said they're gearing up to train staffers more thoroughly so they'll be better able to answer consumers' nutrition-related questions.

"When they [customers] see those labels, they're going to think of other questions. Better educated consumers today will be looking for more information, and we need to be ready for that," said Ann Renier, bakery-deli product manager, for Minneapolis-based Supervalu's Fort Wayne, Ind., division.

Jacqueline Hyde, bakery sales manager at a unit of Dierbergs here, and Barb Harner, bakery director for Steele's Markets, a four-unit independent in Ft. Collins, Colo., agreed.

"We've just begun a new customer service training program and giving our associates nutrition information will fall right into that," Hyde said.

Harner added, "It is going to take some workshopping to get employees up to par on the subject." With the possible exception of muffins, which may surprise consumers with their fat content when it's printed on the standardized label in black and white, retailers said they don't expect sales to be adversely affected. An executive from one of the top supermarket chains in the country, who asked not to be named, said he saw crusty bread becoming the big beneficiary of the law.

"Most significant will be crusty breads. That's now a growing category and would continue to grow anyway, but in light of nutrition information, it will take off to become one of the fastest-growing there is," he said. "Americans in general are still misinterpreting the health benefits of breads because we've had so much high-fat bread in the past. When they start to realize how low in fat the more natural crusty European-style breads are, they'll want them.

"There may be some initial downslide in muffins, but this isn't going to kill any of the key categories. People still want to treat themselves. And as technology improves, low- and no-fat products will get better, too," he added.

Paul Cooper, bakery manager at one of Portland, Ore.-based Bales Thriftway stores said, he'd put nutrition labels on products even if they are technically exempt from the law.

"You're ahead of the game that way. This will become consumer-driven. So if you don't have a label on your product, they're going to wonder what's in it that you're hiding.

"I don't think they really care what's in the product. I mean they're going to buy it anyway, but using the nutrition label shows them that you're concerned enough to give them the information," Cooper said. Added Billie Steele, bakery manager at the Branson, Mo. unit of Springfield, Mo.-based Consumers Markets: "People want to know what they're buying. They know the information is for their good, and they're more apt to buy the product if they see the label.

"The format of the nutrition label is great. The brighter the better. I've found that just putting a sign on a table of product sells more of it," she said. "I see it as a marketing tool. It won't hurt sales. It will increase them. People are health-conscious. They want this information." Even in a town like Branson, which has become a new Nashville, vacationers are just as health-conscious as anybody else, Steele said.

"They feel they'll splurge in the restaurants and then be nutrition-conscious when they come to the grocery store."