THE SPICE AGE

With Americans more willing to tempt their palates than ever before, and more products coming onto the market all the time, retailers are finding the spice aisle definitely affected by the quest for shelf space.Spices and seasoning, excluding salt and pepper, were a $1 billion category across the three main channels for the year ended Oct. 8, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago. The food

With Americans more willing to tempt their palates than ever before, and more products coming onto the market all the time, retailers are finding the spice aisle definitely affected by the quest for shelf space.

Spices and seasoning, excluding salt and pepper, were a $1 billion category across the three main channels for the year ended Oct. 8, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago. The food channel's share was $951,849,856, a 2.5% increase. Units sold in supermarkets also increased, by 2%.

In addition, there has been an overall price decline by suppliers, said Mary Ann Gabriel, an assistant buyer for wholesaler Unified Western Grocers, City of Commerce, Calif. "They are coming to the market in a different way. The suppliers are going to an EDLP approach," Gabriel said. Particularly, she said, Schilling (the western branch of McCormick & Co., the nation's dominant spice manufacturer), but she believes the other major supplier, Tone/Durkee/Spice Islands, is considering it too.

"It was pretty much across the board," Gabriel said. "Price increases from McCormick were minimal -- the highest majority [highest percentage of items] did have a price decline. And it is definitely reflected on the shelf for the customer. It's tough for me to say if sales have then gone up, since our volume has increased because of the number of stores we serve -- around 2,500 or higher," she said.

Red "price reduction" shelf tags were rife in a Kroger spice aisle visited by SN earlier this month in Richmond, Va. Spices were stocked in the aisle with bakeware, candy, cooking oils and flour, and started right after products like Ensure, Glucerna and SlimFast, perhaps because people who are interested in cooking with less added fat or salt often turn to spices to enhance the flavor of foods. Kroger's own brand of spices took up 24 running feet, with some additional FMV brand stocked in staples like vanilla and salt.

Kroger did some interesting cross merchandising, displaying Kroger brand black pepper (in tins, for 99 cents) on special in a hanging metal rack down in front of the cooking oils and away from the rest of the spices. In another aisle, jars of Kroger sugar-cinnamon mixture for $2.49 hung in a similar fixture in front of the peanut butters and jellies. And it merchandised the mid-range store brand of parsley flakes, and, again, black pepper, in hanging vertical racks in front of the canned soup.

"We offer that program to grocery stores," said Laurie Harrsen, manager, consumer affairs and graphic design for McCormick & Co., Hunt Valley, Md. "In the pasta section, we offer a shelf extender that would have Italian seasoning in it, for instance. It can be very successful for adding impulse buys."

Hotter, spicier flavors and blended flavors have been the trend the last few years, and anything for grilling, like rubs, is big.

"The key season is summertime, but we're definitely seeing an increase year-round," Harrsen said.

"We do well in rubs, barbecue spices," said Rob Giusti, specialty foods buyer at Andronico's, Albany, Calif. "We put them out by the meat department and sell three or four times the amount, when we do."

He noted new packaging in sea salt and whole pepper, from three different manufacturers, that now come with grinder tops.

The size of Andronico's spice section has stayed about the same, but the stores carry more in spices now. "We've added about 40 stockkeeping units in the last year-and-a-half, which we accomplished by decreasing the number of facings," said Giusti. "We look at 'how many basils do you need?"'

Prices went up 5% to 10% last year, but not this year, except for vanilla, which has been hard to get due to bad weather in the tropics where it is grown, Giusti said.

Blends are the most prevalent spice now, said Gabriel of Unified Western Grocers. "We are attempting category management to deal with shelf space issues," she continued, adding that it's a tough job when a wholesaler services so many different kinds of clients. Big, bold flavors are still in, and McCormick notes that "combinations of sweet and hot flavors wake up the senses, while chunky vegetables and whole seeds add excitement to the mouth." Tone Brothers, too, says the buzz words in food and spices today are bold, intense and global.

"Think of the spices and herbs used in dishes, in all types of restaurants, that were once primarily used by ethnic restaurants, like ginger, chilies, cumin or cilantro," said Chris Bentley, marketing manager for Spice Islands brand, marketed by Tone Brothers, Ankney, Iowa. Goya, Secaucus, N.J., a purveyor of Spanish food, has come out with new blends of Adobo all-purpose seasoning: with cumin, without pepper, with pepper, and lemon and pepper flavors.

Spices for home chefs are more apt now to be spice blends, such as a new line of nine global spice blends, called Spice Islands World Flavors, introduced by Tone Brothers a few months ago and still rolling out. The line covers Thai to Indian, Cajun to Caribbean, and includes Herb de Provence, Greek, Szechuan, Jamaican Jerk, Daram Masala and Calcutta Heat curry seasoning, Mediterranean and Louisiana-style Cajun seasoning.

In the Kroger brand portion of its spice section, that same trend could be seen in private label with blends named Hot Blends, Caribbean Style Jerk, Fajita and All-Purpose Greek. Next to them on the shelf were two called Grill Time, Kroger blends for seasoning chicken and steak, for $1.69 each, near the McCormick's brand called Grill Mates, which were marked $1.99. McCormick's line had four shelves, and a quick comparison showed its marjoram leaves selling at $3.19, versus Kroger brand for $3.99.

A visit to Ukrop's, also in Richmond, showed its spices took up 15 feet, mostly from the C.F. Sauer Co., a local manufacturer. The retailer placed a "Virginia's Finest" shelf tag in blue and red below the Virginia-produced spices. A Wal-Mart supercenter in the Richmond area had 18 feet of spices, in eight shelves, McCormick mostly, selling the 2.75-ounce Grill Mates for $1.66, a 4-ounce black pepper for $1.77 and a 3.62-ounce cinnamon-sugar for $1.88.

McCormick's all-in-one liquid Flavor Medleys come in four flavors: Garlic Herb, Lemon Pepper, Sun-Dried Tomato & Basil and Italian Herb. "It's an easy foolproof way of adding spices to weeknight cooking," Harrsen said. "You don't even have to measure; you can just pour it.

"Obviously, we have been focusing on flavor combinations, not just single flavors, because consumers want layers, and taking the popular items like sweet and spicy items and blending them together," said Harrsen. "Consumers want chunks, big stuff, so we have pieces of garlic, herbs, sun-dried tomatoes, in there."

T.J. McIntyre, associate category manager for packaged spices for Frontier Natural Products Co-Op, Boulder, Colo., showed the new introductions along with the spice standbys, at Natural Products Expo East in Baltimore in September. Frontier introduced Mama Garlic and "Herby," an herb flavoring, along with organic pepper and sea salt.

"We have a lot of salt-free blends, but we are capitalizing on people who want to cook with unprocessed salt," McIntyre said. These SKUs are 50% North Atlantic French sea salt, hand-harvested. All are certified organic, which is the main selling point.

"I originally wanted to sell a salt-and-pepper blend," McIntyre told SN. "It's another all-purpose seasoning. The trio merchandised together on the shelf -- Mama Garlic, Herby and Pepperman -- makes an impact," he said.

Sea salt has taken off in the last several years. The finest quality is hand-gathered, not mined. Frontier has a coarse grind and a fine grind, in the two-pound size, as well as in 26 ounces. Suggested retails are $3.99 apiece on the Mama Garlic, Herby and Pepperman, $1.79 on the small sea salt and $3.69 on the two-pound size.

For the holidays, the major spices are the same familiar items like allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg, retailers say, but some say they bought more.

"I was surprised when I looked at my spices; I probably am up," said Gabriel. "I had to place another order, and I may have to order again. You definitely don't want to run out."