A major shift in the national attitude toward meatless meals is responsible for the increasing number of vegetarian items in Center Store and natural/specialty-food sections.
"We are changing our stores to fit the vegetarian or health-conscious customer," said Peter Kemp, senior category manager for Randalls Food Markets, Houston.
Randalls is redefining its categories. To do so, it is replacing generic sets, like dietetic lines heavily marketed during the 1980's, with a fresh mix of products.
Raley's Supermarkets and its Bel Air Markets division, both in West Sacramento, Calif., promote natural-food items every week, but do not highlight their vegetarian aspect, said Anne Edey, natural- and specialty-food buyer. Most natural-food items are inherently meatless, so they don't have to be tagged as such, she said.
Kemp noted that in January, Randalls hired a specialty-food merchandiser, Steve Ross, to change the old configuration to cater to vegetarians and the health conscious.
Ross told SN that the reconfigured sets, called natural/organic, are anywhere from 8 to 30 feet long and are about 70% vegetarian.
"Every store that we've redone since the beginning of the year is getting these sections, and stores not slated for resets are getting them, too. Our supplier is out there doing resets almost daily," said Ross.
Loblaws Supermarkets, Toronto, has also recently brought in a specialty-food buyer and may begin installing natural-food sections, according to a management-level source, who did not want to be identified.
Raley's is in the process of finishing the last store remodels in the Bel Air division to accommodate expanded natural foods sections. The updated natural-food enclaves stock dry groceries and refrigerated, fresh and frozen foods.
As reported in SN, Cub Foods Stores in Stillwater, Minn., recently installed "Cub Naturally" store-within-store sections in four units and plans remodels of units in Colorado, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois to accommodate natural food.
Also as reported, Spokane, Wash.-based Rosauers Supermarkets, went one step further and opened Huckleberry's, a freestanding natural-food supermarket.
The Raley's stores have had natural-food sections for years, said Edey, and all of the items found there (and now in the Bel Air stores) are vegetarian, although they are not flagged as such.
What's interesting is that despite the growing popularity of vegetarian foods, vegetarians are still a very small percentage of the population.
Brian Graff, spokesman for the North American Vegetarian Society, Dolgeville, N.Y., estimates the number of vegetarians at about 3% of the population, based on various surveys and anecdotal evidence.
Linda Gilbert, president of Des Moines, Iowa-based HealthFocus, a consulting group that specializes in tracking consumer health trends, estimates that about 0.6% of the population are actual vegetarians -- either ovolacto (who eat eggs and dairy) or vegan (who don't eat animal products at all). But nowadays, people defining themselves as vegetarian have a wide spectrum of eating habits.
The new "vegetarians" eat meat of fish sometimes or even regularly, and when they do stay away, it is not for ethical, but for health reasons. Retailers SN spoke with were aware of this new group of consumers, known as "vegetarian-aware."
"We are aware that consumers out there are not only vegetarians. They are health conscious, or on a diet, or they have dietary restrictions," said Randalls' Kemp.
Gilbert of HealthFocus confirmed that there is a national trend toward eating less meat.
"The number of vegetarians is not growing and has remained [about the same] for the last six years," claims Gilbert, based on the national survey her organization does every two years.
Meanwhile, the number of those who are vegetarian-aware is increasing. These people are not interested in giving up meat altogether, but in eating meatless meals more often.
What is most significant, says Gilbert, is that "vegetarian" no longer means "wacky," but has become a "positive moniker," indicating that "I'm a smart, thoughtful eater." "Twenty-six percent of the population is now what we call vegetarian-aware," she said. "These are people who are eating meatless meals on occasion. Their priorities are eating less fat, more vegetables and whole grains, and the best way to do that is to eat less meat."
Gilbert also noted that the new "vegetarians" don't want tofu or tempeh, but are looking for foods that are familiar and likable, like spinach lasagna.
And they also want convenience, as well as low fat.
Another trend that confirms the growing popularity of meatless meals is that natural-food chains like Whole Foods Market, headquartered in Austin, Texas, and Boulder, Colo.-based Wild Oats Markets, are becoming national players.
"The [natural-food] industry has vegetarian roots," noted Dale Kamibayashi, director of grocery purchasing for Wild Oats.
"We have to continue to offer vegan and vegetarian alternatives on an ongoing basis in our stores," he said. "That's our trademark."
"Our shoppers, generally speaking, have [vegetarianism] in mind. The trend nowadays is that people want to eat healthier and are being instructed to cut down on animal fats [by mainstream experts]. That steers them toward a vegetarian venue," said Kamibayashi.
Wild Oats does not sign vegetarian items, but groups soy products together for the shopping convenience of those who do not eat dairy. In addition, products are grouped by manufacturer, or may get their own freezer door. Many companies, like Amy's or Legume, make only vegetarian products.
Wild Oats' shoppers tend to be knowledgeable about product lines, so the stores only flag new items to bring attention to them.
"We don't focus on vegetarian when we promote, but we do know we have to include vegetarian items every time we do a promotion," said Kamibayashi.
Some of the most popular vegetarian items are grains and pastas, often in packaged formats that can be pulled into an entree or used as a side dish.
"Cup of soup items have big volume, and cereals are big," the buyer noted. "In the frozens area, there is a lot of movement in the meat analog products, like burgers with the feel and texture of meat. The dessert category is also growing tremendously, with nondairy alternatives doing very well."
Ethnic vegetarian foods are also doing well -- including Mexican, Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and Indian items in both frozens and grocery. These add flavor and diversity to vegetarian alternatives, according to Kamibayashi.
Whole Foods has a similar approach to promotion. Since most of the items in the store are vegetarian, it's not necessary to call attention to the fact.
"We are just a big grocery store," said Scott Price, grocery coordinator for the Southwestern region.
"We cater to the vegetarian crowd and have the product mix they are looking for, but we don't specifically target our marketing or promotions to vegetarians," Price said.
Price said most of his customers prefer foods without meat for health, rather than ethical reasons.
"The more educated you get, the more it's about getting fresh food. Freshness and quality are what's important," explained Price.
He estimated that about 80% of the store's products are vegetarian, but agreed that most of his shoppers are probably not strict vegetarians.
Not all retailers report brisk sales of vegetarian products. Caroll Obaugh, senior director of procurement for Ukrop's Super Markets, Richmond, Va., said the company's two new natural-food store-within-stores aren't doing well.
"There's a lot of hype about these foods, but it doesn't seem like people are actually buying them," Obaugh said.
Nonetheless, Ukrop's plans three more natural-food sections in new or remodeled units this year.
The number of true vegetarians may be small, but there are many consumers with similar shopping habits
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necessary to eat some red meat or poultry every day
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Try to buy food
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Prefer to buy from companies that
environmental issues (chart)
Note: Linda Gilbert of HealthFocus estimates that about 0.6% of the population is actually practicing vegetarianism all the time, even though a larger percentage (about 2%) will say they are strict vegetarians.