Food for Thought

One thing that's consistent about food retailing is that it's always changing. And in the past few years, retailers have certainly seen their share of change from the low-carb dieting craze that wreaked havoc on many categories before suddenly disappearing to the steady growth in demand for better for you options. Carol Christison, executive director of the International Dairy Deli

ANAHEIM, Calif. — One thing that's consistent about food retailing is that it's always changing. And in the past few years, retailers have certainly seen their share of change from the low-carb dieting craze that wreaked havoc on many categories before suddenly disappearing to the steady growth in demand for “better for you” options. Carol Christison, executive director of the International Dairy Deli Bakery Association, shared a few thoughts with SN on trends that are heating up and fads that are cooling down.

SN: You'll be giving a presentation on Food Trends on Monday, June 4. What are some of the big trends that your members need to be on the lookout for this year?

CC: The big trends are foods that appeal to a variety of tastes, that offer convenience, and that are adaptable to a variety of lifestyles. Signature food items, extreme flavors, special dietary needs and indulgent items are leading the pack.

Consumers are desperately trying to balance their need for more healthful foods with their desire for great taste. In this current economy, sometimes putting gas in the car takes precedence over putting fuel in your own tank. So consumers are looking for foods that offer comfort, value and guilty-indulgence.

The guilty-indulgence category is a love-hate relationship. Love the food; hate the calories. Love the taste; hate feeling guilty. Some call this “guilty pleasures,” but I think that's so negative. In fact, it's that dichotomy that's driving the trend toward smaller portions. If I have a little bit of something or a little bit of a lot, I can have the taste without the guilt.

For lack of a better term, this can also be called “less is more.” It can be fewer calories, smaller sizes or negative nutrients that promise to expend more calories than consumed. It also emphasizes what's not in a product, rather than what is in it. Low or no trans fat, gluten-free, allergen-free, low or no calorie or sodium, and other value-added options are flooding the market. Mini muffins, mini cakes, cupcakes and single servings are big (no pun intended). Green teas, blends, value-added milks and energy drinks are hot. Dairy-based and soy-based drinks, some with an energy boost, are gaining interest, too. Then there's organic and good-for-you items such as the smaller-portioned probiotic products that are not much bigger than a shot glass. It doesn't have to be big to be good for you.

SN: By contrast, are there any fads that may be short-lived?

CC: We're living in an era when extreme food claims and extreme diets have been the norm. Some of these diets are fad diets, and for the most part they are short-lived. Fad diets become popular through exposure of the author. TV talk shows, food shows, book signings and Internet blogs help popularize the diet du jour. A fad catches the public's eye and can be gone in a wink.

Part of the “less is more” strategy is the thought that “small is the new big.” Some folks still want to “supersize” it, but there are a growing number that are choosing the opposite. Smaller portions may start with packaged goods but they're also found in restaurants. Consumers are ordering miniaturized hamburgers, flights of soups, appetizer-style entrees and more. They are maximizing taste instead of volume.

SN: The media has been buzzing with talk about health and nutrition, and how consumers demand healthier foods. Are your members seeing this demand in their stores?

CC: Food marketers are being very proactive when it comes to creating and marketing foods that appeal to certain categories of health-conscious consumers. Whether it's people who are interested in food as medicine, improving their quality of life, or those who have an allergy or medical concern, there's something for them. The labeling that is helping to identify these special food groups is an important part of the process, too. Consumers want to make better choices, and they want to be better-informed in order to do so. They do read labels. They do have high expectations. And they do vote with their pocketbook. Just look at the number of new bakeries that have sprung up that are dedicated to one category. We have cupcake bakeries. We have gluten-free bakeries. We have whole-wheat bakeries. If customers didn't ask for and expect to have these special dietary needs fulfilled, there wouldn't be any of these niche players.

SN: Food safety has been a hot topic lately. What are some of the ways IDDBA is helping its retail members ensure that food prepared in their stores is safe?

CC: The IDDBA has developed several different training programs that deliver food safety information through videos, workbooks, CDs and the Internet. In addition to training, we are very strongly committed to prevention. That means we support food safety training programs that lead to testing and certification. In fact, we're so committed to that ideal that we have a program that reimburses retail members for a portion of their food safety training and certification costs. IDDBA has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars helping retailers train thousands of supermarket associates and managers under this program.

SN: IDDBA is known for its research and training programs. What new studies or programs are under way that your members can anticipate this year?

CC: We commissioned the Willard Bishop company to do an in-depth study on environmental sustainability for us. We want to help retailers and manufacturers determine what they can do to have an immediate effect on their internal ROI, enhance their corporate citizenship and have a lasting effect on resource conservation. We've interviewed members, key industry players and leading retailers and manufacturers in this area. The report will be out this summer and will cover best-practice scenarios for manufacturing, retailing, agriculture, energy conservation, alternative fuels, water conservation and other issues. It will also include a template that can be used to assess your own corporate efforts and to serve as a yardstick for the future.

SN: The IDDBA show places a lot of emphasis on actionable ideas, viewable merchandising layouts, etc. What should attendees at this year's show be on the lookout for?

CC: Retailing's the game, extreme merchandising is the claim. Put it together and you have extreme retailing. Manufacturers are using product identity as a way to impart branding messages and claims that get attention but may or may not be deliverable.

The first rule of retailing is that you have to get the customer's attention. Only then can you sell them something. The IDDBA's Show & Sell Center is created by retailers who have to execute against this challenge on a daily basis. They understand what it takes to get attention, and then — that all important next step — engage the customer. They spend countless hours creating ideas, new products, themes, and, yes, even extreme merchandising ideas, so that attendees can capture an idea that will sell more product.

The exhibitors have created great displays and selling concepts to do the same thing, but with a focus on their products. This entire show is a theater for retailing ideas and showing new products.

Retail buyers and merchandisers know that they can see a lot of new products, innovative merchandising and a great speaker lineup. All at one time, in one place.