TRENDS DO COME AND GO, BUT LESSONS ALWAYS REMAIN

Mention the words "low carb" these days, and you get a roll of the eyes and an almost audible groan.No, it's not all that maltitol that's the cause of the industry's collective case of agita. More than anything, the reaction seems to express varying degrees of disappointment. Regardless of the numbers, retailers know it's not the same business it was a year ago, or even six months ago.After all that

Mention the words "low carb" these days, and you get a roll of the eyes and an almost audible groan.

No, it's not all that maltitol that's the cause of the industry's collective case of agita. More than anything, the reaction seems to express varying degrees of disappointment. Regardless of the numbers, retailers know it's not the same business it was a year ago, or even six months ago.

After all that quick work, the food industry -- from manufacturer to retailer -- is again left a bit bewildered by the fickle, contradictory demands of an ever-changing consumer population.

Manufacturers report that their inventories are starting to pile up, prompting some to announce they'll be cutting back on stockkeeping units. Retailers scrambled to stock products -- some of which admittedly should never have made it out of the research and development lab -- only to have these hot items languish on the shelf, unable to sell at half price. Then, there are the numerous research and consulting firms out there issuing a universe of conflicting numbers: Low carb is up. Low carb is down. Low carb has plateaued.

All of these assessments might be true. For retailers, however, the numbers should be irrelevant because it's not about low carb, but how supermarket operators can use the lessons learned from this diet phenomenon to help them become better at what they do. SN published numerous stories over the past year detailing how leading retailers responded quickly with a comprehensive selection of foods (and note that "comprehensive" does not necessarily mean big) and a responsible educational program that simply helped dieters shop the store, rather than promote specific brands. The articles weren't about the products, but about the retailers. The supermarket industry can take a great measure of pride and claim some degree of success in its management and sensitive promotion of what easily could have been a callous exploitation of desperate consumers.

Indeed, good supermarkets are maturing into "food education centers" that include not only food products, but also classrooms with blackboards and demonstration kitchens, interactive pharmacies, and more sophisticated outreach programs that go into a community to schools, nursing homes and other common areas.

The nature of low carb is also evolving. Many manufacturers SN has spoken with are quietly re-positioning their low-carb food and beverage products with a broader health and wellness message applicable to a group larger than dieters.

For example, what started as a weight-loss craze is now becoming a steady source of innovation for those afflicted with diabetes. Like dieters, they are confronted with making long-term changes in their lifestyles, and once they leave the doctor's office, their first concern is finding out what they can still eat and what they have to forgo or modify in order to stay well.

Retailers can no longer get by merely as purveyors of other people's products. Those who build on what they learned during the mad rush of low-carb demand are poised to enhance their reputation if they volunteer to act as a sensible, reliable destination for a generation of consumers just now learning they can eat their way back to health.