TOSS UP

Consumers are throwing a lot of new ingredients into salad bowls these days. Five to 10 years ago, the salad was a side dish, said Jim Wisner, president of the Libertyville, Ill.-based Wisner Marketing Group. Now it's being marketed and utilized by most consumers as a center-plate dish or as a main meal component as much as anything else. All the foodie trends are changing the conception of what a

Consumers are throwing a lot of new ingredients into salad bowls these days.

“Five to 10 years ago, the salad was a side dish,” said Jim Wisner, president of the Libertyville, Ill.-based Wisner Marketing Group. “Now it's being marketed and utilized by most consumers as a center-plate dish or as a main meal component as much as anything else. All the foodie trends are changing the conception of what a salad is. You're going to see a lot more things with fruits and dried fruits and nuts used in them.”

Consumers have acquired an appetite for a variety of salads, and have branched out beyond the produce department for ingredients. As a result, some retailers are cross-merchandising products like nuts and cheeses in the refrigerated bagged salad section of produce departments.

“Cross-promotional displays with other items, such as mozzarella from our cheese department, make for an easy upgrade from just a salad of lettuce,” said Allen Jones, national category manager for produce at Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats Markets.

Indeed, cheese is appearing more frequently in retail produce departments, noted one industry observer.

“Lots of different things you can put on salads are coming into produce,” said Marcia Mogelonsky, senior analyst at Mintel, Chicago. “Cheese is the one that springs to mind the most, because I'm seeing a lot more cheese in the produce departments. It's almost as though those two departments — dairy and produce — are coming together.”

Refrigerated salad dressings are also getting a sales boost from salad's mainstreaming, even though they've been established in the department for years.

“Because they have more of a fresh image, I think the refrigerated dressings seem to be more exciting than a bottle of old-fashioned Italian dressing that you buy on the shelf,” she said. “People's tastes are more sophisticated, and they're buying more upscale.”

Associates at Phoenix-based Sprouts Farmers Markets have seen an increase in sales of refrigerated vinaigrettes over the basic ranch and blue cheese dressings, said Jack Nielsen, vice president of produce and warehouse operations for Sprouts.

“We have seen some uptick in the way our consumers are changing their shopping habits for salad offerings over the past few years,” Nielsen said. “The willingness to experiment with salads has been brought on mostly by chefs, cooking shows and television personalities.”

The refrigerated dressings segment has steadily increased overall over the past five years, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago. Sales for the latest 52 weeks ending Nov. 5, 2006, were up 3.3% over a year ago, for a total of almost $203 million in food store channels.

At Wild Oats, Jones said sales of refrigerated dressings were actually down slightly relative to the same period a year ago. Jones attributes the dip to the company's reduction of promotional activity this year compared to last year. Wild Oats has an in-house sampling program that frequently aligns with the biweekly specials and features.

Refrigerated vinaigrettes are also popular at Wild Oats. Jones said customers respond favorably to the dressings made by smaller producers such as Cindy's, which is Wild Oats' top line, followed by the Wild Oats private label.

Organic products also represent a growing trend in the refrigerated dressings category, according to industry executives.

“All the major manufacturers are developing an organic line — Litehouse dressings, for example,” Jones said. “People want to eat healthy and feel good about where their food is coming from and how it's produced, and organic offers all of these benefits to them. If you have an organic salad, you wouldn't want to pour conventional dressing or other condiments on top.”

SPACE CHALLENGE

Space is a constant challenge in the produce department, and retailers need to be selective about which refrigerated salad dressings they stock. While there are more upscale and organic refrigerated dressings nowadays, they're up there fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with established brands like Marie's, which topped the individual brands of refrigerated salad dressings the past year, Mogelonsky said. Nationwide sales for Marie's refrigerated dressings totaled about $70 million for the 52-week period ending Nov. 5, 2006.

“There's always been a place in the produce department for the refrigerated salad dressing, and that place has kind of expanded and contracted a little as dressings rotate through,” said Mogelonsky. “It's very expensive real estate there, because the produce department is absolutely jam-packed with produce. So that's one issue they have. It's not a bad thing; they just have to weigh [things] before they make decisions.”

Mogelonsky believes that is why more retailers have been bringing out small coolers filled with refrigerated dressings.

“That's one way to introduce a new flavor and hope it's going to catch on,” she said.

Jones of Wild Oats agreed, noting that the challenge he faces is largely related to display space in some of the smaller stores, due to the fast-growing nature of this category.

“On average, our stores have a smaller footprint than other mainstream retailers, which limits the amount of case linear feet we can devote to this category,” he said.

“We address those challenges by implementing accordion schematics that vary the amount of facings an item will receive based on the case size.”

Furthermore, retailers are using pegboards to maximize space and still merchandise salad accessories in the produce department, Mogelonsky said.

“There's a lot more nuts and dried fruits — Melissa's and Frieda's have really made a play for pegboards in the salad department,” she said. “It's using every bit of space you can use in the produce department. It used to be that you had the angled display racks, and now the sides — where they used to just walk by — are pegboard with products hanging from them now.”

INDIVIDUAL CUSTOMIZATION

Industry experts said they believe the next big thing will be individually sized salad accessories, such as refrigerated dressings and packaged nuts, in the produce departments.

“In an era where portion control is becoming a buzzword, I wouldn't be surprised to see these things repackaged in individual servings,” said Mogelonsky. “I could see that concept of individual packaging that you see in the deli or prepared sections extending back into the produce departments.”

Wisner, too, said the single-serve trend is likely to gain momentum.

“I would envision seeing, at some point down the road, more what I would call single-serving sizes, so I can grab a little packet of whatever and have all the parts I need for a salad for lunch that I can take to work with me,” he said.

Single-serving sizes of nuts, dried fruit and dressings also enable consumers to customize their salads more easily.

According to Mogelonsky, consumers are really expanding their taste horizons, and the large jars of refrigerated dressings don't encourage them to try new flavors.

“This bodes well for the future of more individual and smaller packages of these things so people could almost customize, because customization is such a big word now, too, in food,” she said. “They could customize the salad dressing choices, too, by buying a half a dozen mixed packages of refrigerated dressings instead of one big jar. The main words are innovation and customization. Organic and natural are always going to be big, and I think customization is going to be the word that is really going to make a difference with the big jars of salad dressing that people just never use up.”