As winter weather rolls in, retailers anticipate the seasonal spike in Center Store soup sales. But the thermometer is only part of the equation, as manufacturers respond to consumer demand, and provide opportunities for grocery merchandisers to offer soup as a convenient, and healthy, meal solution.Although soup season is upon us, retailers are careful to bear in mind that soup always has the potential

As winter weather rolls in, retailers anticipate the seasonal spike in Center Store soup sales. But the thermometer is only part of the equation, as manufacturers respond to consumer demand, and provide opportunities for grocery merchandisers to offer soup as a convenient, and healthy, meal solution.

Although soup season is upon us, retailers are careful to bear in mind that soup always has the potential to drive store traffic.

"During the summer, the cooking soups and the broths are going to drive the category," according to Marsh Reynolds, purchasing specialist for Hy-Vee Food Stores, Des Moines, Iowa. "People tend to forget that we're still moving a lot of soup."

While condensed soups remain staples in the grocery aisles year-round as recipe bases, current on-the-go lifestyles and a decrease in the number of people preparing meals from scratch have given ready-to-serve varieties a new edge.

According to ACNielsen, Schaumburg, Ill., canned soup sales grew 1.6% over the 52-week period ending Nov. 4, 2000. The ready-to-serve variety is showing an 8.4% increase, while the condensed variety is showing a 4.1% decrease in sales.

Kevin Pruitt, a category manager for the Salisbury, N.C.-based Food Lion, is witnessing this trend in his stores. Pruitt said that although 80% of category sales come from wet soup driven mainly by the condensed segment -- best known for chicken noodle, cream of mushroom and tomato -- the ready-to-serve variety is having a distinct impact.

"For the past year, category sales have been flat for total soup," said Pruitt. "However, recent trends show soup momentum building, up 5.3%, driven mainly by the ready-to-serve segment, which grew 15.3%."

Mel Korn, president and chief executive officer of Saatchi & Saatchi Collaborative Marketing, New York, believes that although soup appears to be having a difficult time finding its way onto the menu, the importance of condensed soup as an ingredient will remain.

"Campbell's is trying to balance the act between meals and recipes at this point," said Korn. "Lifestyles have changed, and I am not sure if Campbell's marketing fully reflects that change.

"Progresso are the ready-to-serve guys, and their success has a lot to do with the convenience factor," said Korn. "And, the flavors are more interesting. Consumer tastes have gone to another level and Progresso has answered that need."

Campbell's has begun to focus its marketing efforts on the consumer of the 21st century, and retailers SN spoke with said the new products have thus far been successful.

"Campbell's is doing pretty well," asserted Russ Hahn, buyer and merchandiser for Scolari's Food and Drug, Sparks, Nev. "They are always being creative and now they're trying to find a new niche in the convenience market."

Food Lion's Pruitt agreed with Hahn's assessment of Campbell's current strategy, and said the latter has been instrumental in new product development in the soup category. Pruitt points to the company's new microwavable Soup to Go line and the recent launch of a ready-to-serve version of its R&W condensed varieties as promising innovations.

Pruitt highlights the versatility of the soup category as a way to combat the common perception of soup as something best suited for the colder months, and claims that soup remains a dominant lunch and dinner solution year-round.

"The summer months provide an opportunity to capitalize on sales by leveraging soup as the core ingredient behind meal solutions," he maintains. "Further, given the convenience of soup in its many forms, it stands as a meal solution in itself, especially during the out-of-school season when most kids are at home."

The quick and easy properties of soup can be taken out of the grocery aisles, making soup a highly adaptable commodity. Refrigerated soups, often found near the deli, have recently begun to make significant headway. Numbers from ACNielsen show refrigerated soups gaining considerable ground with a 50.6% increase in sales for the most recent 52-week period.

Scolari's Hahn told SN that his stores will carry Kettle Rich's recent re-introduction of refrigerated soup as a home meal replacement option. The chain tried Crock Pot's refrigerated line over three years ago, but it didn't move well and was discontinued. However, Hahn feels Kettle Rich's microwavable, resealable bag will do well in today's market.

According to Hahn, the line has witnessed a very positive reception in the East, at chains such as Jewel-Osco in Chicago, and has just become available in the West.

"Convenience is where the consumer is shopping," maintained Hahn. "Consumers are going to the refrigerated section for quick and easy meal replacements; cold cuts, for example. They see the soup over there and it's a new home meal replacement option."

Frozen soups are not seeing the same kind of popularity, experiencing a 4.1% decrease in sales, according to ACNielsen's latest figures. And Hahn's stores do not currently stock any frozen soups. Hahn believes a big part of the problem is a lack of consumer awareness.

"Consumers are trained to go the grocery aisles for soup," he explained. "You have to retrain the consumer to buy that product in that section, really work on making it a destination point."

In addition to the convenience factor, soup remains the quintessential comfort food, and the wholesome connotations work in the category's favor when a quick, nutritious family meal is in order. Despite the high sodium content, soup is generally perceived as a healthy alternative.

Indeed, heightened consumer awareness about issues of food purity and safety could be driving the refrigerated segment as fresh ingredients take precedence over fat grams and caloric counts.

Products like Healthy Choice and Campbell's Healthy Request continue to occupy a certain niche; however, the trend appears to be on the decline. Hy-Vee's Reynolds believes the consumer definition of healthy is taking a new direction.

"I don't know if people necessarily want the word 'healthy' on the packaging anymore," she said. "I think we're moving away from that trend. The people who are thinking about their health are leaning toward the organic and natural products."

Healthy Choice has reformulated to improve upon taste, but Reynold's stores have not carried the line for long, and she could not comment on the success of the revamped line. Hy-Vee currently carries an assortment of refrigerated and organic soups, provided by an outside gourmet food company.

Edwards & Sons, a supplier of all natural and organic food products out of Carpinteria, Calif., has definitely benefited from the new wave of consumer consciousness, according to Alison Cox, vice president of sales and marketing for the company.

"We've always had a slight presence, but we've only really started to focus on the larger supermarkets over the last three years," Cox explained.

The natural food channel is still the bulk of the company's business, but at this time, Edwards & Sons soups can be found at traditional supermarkets across the country, including Publix, Hannaford Bros. and Raley's, according to Cox.

Cox said the company has been offering its trademark instant miso soup for 22 years, and two years ago introduced the organic variety. The line also includes organic bouillon cubes, vegetarian soup stock to be used as a substitute for chicken stock, and other instant organic options.

Cox also attributes the increasing popularity of soy-based products like miso soup to the increasing demand for ethnic variations, particularly Japanese styles. In the natural food stores, Cox finds the miso products in the Asian set, yet conventional chains generally integrate it alongside the other soups.