SUPERMARKETS ARE SELECTING NATURAL BEVERAGES

Beverages are among the fastest-growing segments in the natural-food industry, and some supermarket retailers are capitalizing on the trend.J.B. Pratt Foods, Oklahoma City, devotes a significant amount of space to various natural beverage categories. The extensive selection is part of Pratts' strategy to create a mainstream supermarket that offers natural-food shoppers significant alternatives.During

Beverages are among the fastest-growing segments in the natural-food industry, and some supermarket retailers are capitalizing on the trend.

J.B. Pratt Foods, Oklahoma City, devotes a significant amount of space to various natural beverage categories. The extensive selection is part of Pratts' strategy to create a mainstream supermarket that offers natural-food shoppers significant alternatives.

During recent in-store visits, SN saw organic apple juice on sale and prominently displayed in Pratts' four Wellmarket units. (See related story, Page 39.)

Blue Sky natural sodas and sparkling waters are also featured, merchandised in two stores on the wall of values.

One store in Norman, Okla., has 10 feet of natural or organic juices, from Knudsen, Mountain Sun and Cinagro. There are also vegetable blends from Vruit and carrot juice from Hain, as well as fruit juices with ginkgo biloba and with lemon, ginger and echinacea. In the same unit, soy, rice and powdered goat milk are merchandised nearby.

An additional 10 feet are given to natural sodas and spritzers, with ginseng beverages very prominent.

Another Pratts unit on Northwest 39th Street in Oklahoma City has 16 feet of natural and organic juices. The set also includes some sparkling cider, alcohol-free wine and aloe vera and similar medicinal drinks.

Nondairy alternatives occupy another 10 feet and include soy and rice products from Westsoy, Westbrae, Vitasoy, Eden and Rice Dream. In addition, powdered caseinate-free milk is in the set.

Medicinal and herbal teas occupy 8 feet of space at the Northwest 39th Street store. In the Walker Street store in Oklahoma City, herbal and medicinal teas occupy about 16 feet of space, and Lipton and Bigelow's herb teas are merchandised with all the other brands.

Natural shelf-stable juices and functional drinks saw a 6.2% increase in sales in supermarkets in 1997, with dollar sales of $23.6 million, according to ACNielsen ScanTrack: SPINS NaturalTrack information, provided by SPINS, San Francisco, a marketing company that tracks sales of the natural-products industry.

Organic apple juice itself was up 18.6% in mainstream supermarkets, with $1.49 million in sales. In the health-food store channel -- which includes Wild Oats Markets, Boulder, Colo., and Whole Foods Market Inc., Austin, Texas -- organic apple juice was up 11.5%, with $16.2 million in sales.

Natural teas, encompassing medicinal herbal singles and blends, green teas, nonmedicinal herbals, natural brand black tea varieties, diet and iced teas, and chai, were up 6.3% in supermarkets, with $106.1 million in sales.

Nondairy beverages, the largest packaged-food category in natural-product stores, saw a 20.5% increase in that channel, with an estimated $134.6 million in sales. Soy beverages were $72.8 million, while rice beverages were at $56.8 million. In the mainstream supermarket channel, sales for nondairy beverages increased 57.7%, to $45.8 million. Soy beverages accounted for $27 million in sales, while rice beverages accounted for $18.6 million.

No doubt in response to such statistics and consumer demand, soy milk and other nondairy alternatives are now becoming widely available in supermarkets nationwide. Erwin Simon, president of the Hain Food Group, Uniondale, N.Y., advises retailers who don't want to make a large commitment to natural food to simply stock the most popular items, such as soy milk, cereals and snacks.

Green, medicinal and herbal teas are also growing beverage segments. Medicinal blends grew 14.9% in supermarkets last year, while single blends grew 2.5%, according to the ACNielsen/SPINS data. Combined sales of medicinal teas were $37.8 million in mainstream stores.

"The green-tea phenomenon is just hitting its stride," said Michael Langenborg, director of marketing at Traditional Medicinals in Sebastopol, Calif. He noted that recent media coverage of its antioxidant properties has generated consumer demand. Since Lipton and Bigelow introduced green tea varieties, the category has been growing by leaps and bounds.

According to ACNielsen/ SPINS data, the green-tea category was up 78.5% in supermarkets in 1994, with $5.3 million in sales.