SLIMMING PICKINGS

The skinny on baked and low-fat salty snacks is that they are helping to lure health-conscious shoppers back to the snack-food aisle.Items such as no-fat pretzels, tortilla chips and Baked Lay's potato chips have become overnight sensations with shoppers, according to retailers. However, several note that items bearing only a "reduced-fat" or "low-fat" banner across their package, such as certain

The skinny on baked and low-fat salty snacks is that they are helping to lure health-conscious shoppers back to the snack-food aisle.

Items such as no-fat pretzels, tortilla chips and Baked Lay's potato chips have become overnight sensations with shoppers, according to retailers. However, several note that items bearing only a "reduced-fat" or "low-fat" banner across their package, such as certain varieties of crackers, have been slower to catch on.

"We are now attracting people who have stopped buying snacks back into the category," he noted, said Vern Buford, head buyer for grocery at Rice Food Markets, Houston.

"We don't have to advertise Baked Lay's. We just put them out. The response to them has been unbelievable," said Mark Polsky, senior vice president at Magruders, Rockville, Md.

Polsky said Magruders has been merchandising Baked Lay's on endcaps provided by Frito-Lay, Plano, Texas.

"Baked Lay's products have taken some of business away from traditional potato chips, but at the same time are adding to the category," he said.

Gary Evey, spokesman for Spartan Stores, the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based wholesaler servicing over 500 supermarkets in the Midwest, said the low-fat snacks have not been cannibalizing their traditional counterparts.

"There is a 'second' user in this [low-fat snack] category rather than a switcher. This is the consumer who is extremely health-conscious or on a very strict diet," he said.

As a result, he said the baked and low-fat items have only been performing fairly at stores supplied by Spartan.

Phil Quillin, president of Quillin's Inc., a nine-unit La Crosse, Wis.-based independent that is supplied by Fleming Cos.' La Crosse depot, said the low-fat snacks sell better in his more urban stores, such as those near the local university.

"We have two stores where the baked salty snacks are doing outstanding business. They are up over 50% from last year, but in the other stores, they are just holding their own," he told SN.

In the two stores where the segment is doing well, Quillin's has created a "Better-For-You" salty snack section.

However, he noted that Quillin's does not plan to expand the Better-For-You sections to its more rural stores.

"We've tried [the sections] in our stores out in the country and they don't work. People are more health conscious in the cities and the work habits are also different. People who work on the farm burn calories. They are not sitting around eating potato chips," he said.

Buford said Rice Markets uses a better-for-you section designed by Frito-Lay to merchandise its Baked Lay's, nonfat pretzels and other products.

"We try to put all of the brands in that particular section. This section is in-line," he said.

Other retailers said they prefer merchandising the baked, reduced-fat and low-fat snacks in-line with their full-fat counterparts.

"It makes more sense to keep the products integrated because people don't tend to go to a low-fat section. They go to the regular section of the aisle and then they make their buying decision. It also makes it easier for them to compare labels," said Polsky of Magruder.

Peter Dudis, director of grocery procurement at Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., said taste is a key factor consumers look for when purchasing snack foods.

"While our reduced-fat potato chips are doing OK, our low-fat tortilla chips are doing very well. However, usually the tortilla chips are used with the salsa, which enhances the flavor of the chips," he said.

To help boost sales, Dudis said Big Y has been cross-merchandising jars of salsa with all the tortilla chip displays. Aside from displays, the low-fat snacks are merchandised in-line with their full-fat counterparts.

Roger Burks, senior vice president at The Mad Butcher, Pine Bluff, Ark., said that while his chain has been seeing big increases in the sales of reduced-fat and no-fat snacks, it is important to keep advertising the products.

"We advertise the low- and reduced-fat snacks a lot. They offer us the same margins as the regular snacks because they retail for about the same price," he said.

Not all retailers report brisk sales of the healthier salty snack segment. Ken Robb, senior vice president of marketing for Brodbeck Enterprises, Platteville, Wis., which operates eight Dick's Supermarkets in Wisconsin and Illinois, said sales of the baked and low-fat products have been slightly below expectations.

Buford of Rice Markets said that while items bearing a no-fat or baked moniker are selling well, those with "low-fat" or "reduced-fat" he would classify as a "dying breed."