SALAD DAYS

Salad looms large on the advancing health front, and Center Store offers much in the way of color and pizzazz for consumers looking to dress up their conventional greens. While croutons and bacon bits remain solid sellers, opportunities abound for more daring combinations.Iceberg lettuce and a dollop of ranch no longer define the status quo as consumers search for unique ways to satisfy their nutritional

Salad looms large on the advancing health front, and Center Store offers much in the way of color and pizzazz for consumers looking to dress up their conventional greens. While croutons and bacon bits remain solid sellers, opportunities abound for more daring combinations.

Iceberg lettuce and a dollop of ranch no longer define the status quo as consumers search for unique ways to satisfy their nutritional needs. As shoppers select the mesclun and riddichio, grocery aisles can realize the residuals with anything from canned mandarin oranges to pine nuts.

Melissa Joy Buscio, the registered dietitian for Jewel-Osco, Melrose Park, Ill., said "keeping things interesting" is one of the tenets of sound nutritional behavior.

"People get tired of the same old thing and they fall off track," she said. "And visual appeal is also very important."

Salads are no exception and, as the consumption of vegetables increases, Buscio sees a corresponding trend in the variety of fixings.

"We are definitely branching out and becoming more creative," she said. "There are so many things available."

While the base will generally be lettuce, Buscio recommends a number of grocery items to add color, as well as a nutritional boost. For instance, canned beans, such as black, kidney or garbanzo, work well with salad. Canned corn, roasted red peppers in a jar or diced green chilies in a jar all add a nice splash of color. She also noted canned tuna as a popular salad item.

Ethnic salad variations offer retailers the opportunity to further increase the sale of nonperishables, making the most of the entire store. For example, a Mexican theme might make use of canned chilies, salsa, a Monterey jack cheese and guacamole, Buscio said.

Ron Amstutz, a buyer for Buehler Foods, Wooster, Ohio, said salad could play a role in the stores' successful Italian Days and Mexican Days promotions, during which the entire store is cross merchandised with an ethnic theme.

Daily merchandising decisions are left to the discretion of individual stores, but Amstutz felt confident in saying that the most successful stores will employ tie-ins on a regular basis, offering appropriate grocery items in the produce department.

The hot months are typically a good time for salads as consumers opt for lighter, more refreshing meals.

"People tend to drop a few pounds during the summer," explained Jewel's Buscio. "Our appetites aren't as big and we don't want something too heavy in our stomachs."

Retailers can take advantage of the summer months by incorporating salad items into barbecue and grilling promotions. Buscio suggested endcaps or recipe cards highlighting unique salads making use of common grocery items.

Amstutz witnesses an increase in salad-related sales beginning in mid-May, yet he noted that they tend to drop off after the Fourth of July. Currently, his stores are preparing for a promotion featuring Kraft salad dressings as a cookout item.

While black beans and canned fruit may provide innovative departures for the salad connoisseur, many consumers see these items as household staples, more likely to be tossed in a salad simply because they're in the pantry. Although Amstutz maintains that his stores in upscale areas could stand to benefit from a focus on creative salad blends, croutons, bacon bits and dressings remain the most visible options.

Croutons and bacon bits don't lend themselves well to energetic promotion, and retailers SN spoke with put them in the slow-and-steady class. However, the numbers are solid, if not particularly flashy. According to figures from ACNielsen, Schaumburg, Ill., croutons exhibited a 2% increase in unit sales for the 52 weeks ended March 24, 2001, for a total of $142 million. The dry salad and potato topping segment -- including bacon bits and the like -- experienced a 5.7% increase in unit volume during that same time frame, with sales of $98 million.

Also, Amstutz has had a lot of success with crouton displays given the right price promotion.

"We can literally blow through hundreds of cases," he said.

Russ Hahn, a buyer and merchandiser for Scolari's Food and Drug of Sparks, Nev., sees the possibility for growth along the lines of croutons and bacon bits due to changing lifestyles.

"People want to eat more greens, and they want to make it palatable," he said. "They are adding things to make a salad more appealing."

Salad dressings appear to hold the most promise. Statistics from ACNielsen for the previously mentioned 52 weeks showed liquid salad dressings gaining 5% in units, to reach $1.2 billion in sales, while refrigerated/deli salad dressings realized a 5.9% increase, to $122 million in sales.

"Salad dressings are definitely the best selling of the bunch," said Amstutz.

Hahn has noticed manufacturers focusing on value sizes, and Robert Lavigne, category manager for the Houston-based, Randall's/Tom Thumb, is trying to play up the 16- and 24-ounce bottles, de-emphasizing the 8-ounce size.

"We've recently redone our planograms, putting the larger sizes at eye level," said Lavigne.

The set is now arranged by flavor as opposed to brand groupings, he added.

According to Amstutz, Kraft is the No. 1 seller at Buehler's, but he has had little luck with the larger sizes. Still, he looks to value-packaged items in an attempt to attract families with children.

Although Kraft and their mainstream counterparts remain the dominant players, demand is growing for interesting flavors with an exotic, gourmet twist. In Amstutz's opinion, the more unusual entries -- such as raspberry vinaigrettes or tangerine-orange combinations -- will never attain the status of a Kraft Italian, although the segment is growing.

"People are out there looking for that," he said. "If you don't carry them, people will ask about them."

"The market gets saturated with the Thousand Islands and ranches," said Scolari's Hahn. "But manufacturers are always trying to be inventive when it comes to flavors. They try to get a new niche out there."

Randy Slentz, a buyer for the Modesto, Calif.-based Save Mart, also noted an increase in the demand for specialty dressings. However, this growth may be hard to see in the specialty distribution channels as mainstream manufacturers come out with products to meet that need, he said, such as Best Foods' citrus blends.

Slentz has witnessed considerable growth in the natural and organic segments, particularly with Annie's all-natural and organic dressings, which is available in an 8-ounce bottle. Relying on the natural foods label as a point of difference, Annie's sticks to the more familiar flavors, which Slentz believes contribute to the product's success. Despite the increased demand for specialty dressings, Slentz agreed with the other retailers SN spoke with, naming ranch as the market leader.

Indeed, ranch has become a versatile commodity. According to Slentz, the most dramatic development in the dressing category has been the marriage of ranch dressing and frozen pizzas. Slentz's stores sometimes merchandise the two together, following a popular trend in regional pizza parlors.

The specialty dressings are placed in line with the standard dressings at Slentz's stores. Additional salad toppings -- including olives, peppers, bacon bits and croutons -- are merchandised in the same area.