New products are often the fuel that fires sales at supermarkets. They spark excitement, build trial and generate volume.
That is -- if they're on the shelf. SN recently went undercover in New York's borough of Manhattan to determine who is maximizing the opportunity offered by the arrival of a new item on the food retailing scene. Here, business is as competitive as anywhere else -- and perhaps even more so -- due to the sheer number of alternatives consumers have to traditional retail food outlets.
Being first with a new product is undeniably an advantage, so SN decided to check select supermarkets for three new items that are currently being advertised on local television. They are: three new Mexican flavors of frozen Hot Pockets; Palmolive Dish Wipes; and Glad Press 'n Seal wrap.
SN visited nine stores, and had trouble finding these items. Only one chain, Pathmark, had all three. They were found at its downtown Pike Slip store on a Friday night. "Pathmark probably has a significant amount of marketing funds, and can get them on the shelf quicker than others," said Paul Weitzel, a vice president with Willard Bishop Consulting, Barrington, Ill. He noted that larger chains tend to get more support from the brokers and manufacturers in getting new products on the shelf.
Execution is still a big issue, too, Weitzel and others said. There is more product chasing shelf space, particularly in cities, where supermarkets may be as small as 15,000 square feet.
"It's harder to cut in new items, and the freezer case is a battle in and of itself," said Richard George, professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University, Philadelphia.
Frequently with new items, there are production problems, or the manufacturer is unable to accurately forecast the demand.
"With 23,000 new items introduced this year, how many can a typical retailer accommodate?" asked Don Stuart, partner in Cannondale Associates, Wilton, Conn.
The retailer may have approved it, but it may not be through the system yet, through the warehouse and out to the shelf. "Basically retail execution is rated as the No. 1 problem by both manufacturers and retailers -- 94% of retailers and 95% manufacturers, based on our category management study. This is a perfect example," said Stuart.
"Execution is one of the toughest problems we have in the industry," Weitzel agreed. While checking on the presence of the products themselves, SN was looking for other basics of food retailing -- such as variety, effectiveness of merchandising, pricing information and neatness.
All told, SN visited one store operated by A&P's Food Emporium division; three Gristede's units; two Pathmark stores; a Whole Foods Market; one Fairway Market; and two D'Agostino's. According to TDLinx, Wilton, Conn., a market research firm, there are 18 Food Emporiums in Manhattan; 43 Gristede's; three Pathmarks, which have the largest footprints of any operating in the borough; one Whole Foods Market; two independently owned Fairways; and 17 D'Agostino's.
Every chain SN checked except for Whole Foods carries the Hot Pockets brand. The three new Mexican flavors are Three Cheese and Chicken Quesadilla, Beef Taco, and Lean Pockets Steak Fajita. The last was never located.
A spokeswoman for Nestle USA told SN that Pathmark, A&P, ShopRite, Waldbaum's and Price Chopper would be most likely to have the new Mexican varieties, and that the chicken quesadilla and the beef taco would be easiest to find in New York.
"They usually don't run the ads till they have 60% to 70% [all-commodity volume], which is a general figure for the industry," said the spokeswoman, Loretta Ivany. Of the chains she mentioned, only Pathmark has Manhattan locations.
An older Mexican stockkeeping unit, Chicken Fajita Lean Pockets, was available at several retailers.
D'Agostino's 23rd Street Market visted on Sept. 5 had four stockkeeping units of Hot Pockets, and two of Lean Pockets, but no new Mexican flavors. Frozens looked like it needed re-stocking. Some shelves looked helter-skelter. For instance, a package of White Castle hamburgers was on its side next to the Hot Pockets, and away from the rest of the White Castle display.
D'Agostino's, based in suburban Larchmont, N.Y., plays up its New York-ness, with a tagline of "Where New York Shops."
Gristede's Mega Store at 26th Street and Eighth Avenue was visited at about 2 p.m. on the same day. The Mega Store is a new format for Gristede's, which, like D'Agostino's, emphasizes its local roots. Right inside the entrance is an animated cow character who greets shoppers when someone presses a button. "Welcome to Gristede's," it says. "New York is the greatest city on earth, and you're our No. 1 customer. Thank you for shopping at Gristede's!"
This store was larger, busier and cheerier than the D'Agostino's, as evidenced by a young boy who sped down an aisle on a scooter. Gristede's had a lot more frozens: five doors were marked clearly and reserved for organics. SN saw no Hot Pockets at all in this store, although another Gristede's, uptown at 74th Street, had five shelves full, but none of the new flavors.
Doing our new-product check, SN was deterred from even going down Gristede's 26th Street store's foils and wraps aisle because of the clutter of half-unpacked boxes, and because an employee sat on a crate at the far end, pricing items by hand. That crate and another empty crate next to him formed a complete blockade of the aisle. SN did go down the aisle, but found no Glad Press 'n Seal, nor the Palmolive dish wipes.
Unlike these two rather stodgy stores, Fairway Market, on the Upper West Side at 74th Street and Broadway, is a gourmet madhouse. SN visited close to 7 p.m. that same Friday, and it was very busy. The floor plan can be a bit intimidating and a little confusing, with oddly placed extensions, additions and chopped-up spaces, but the entire atmosphere does create a buzz of excitement. However, SN couldn't find any of the three target new products. As a specialty store, Fairway may not even have ordered the items, but no one at the retailer could be reached for comment.
They did have Hot Pockets, and lots of them. But not the new ones.
"I wouldn't necessarily expect to see Hot Pockets in the specialty food markets," said Jay Rosengarten, a consultant and president of The Rosengarten Group, Rye, N.Y. Limited shelf space, particularly in the city, means that the manufacturer would have to make a compelling argument for adding it, he added.
"The retailer's first obligation is to have products on the shelf that sell," said Rosengarten, noting it's not uncommon for new items to take six to nine months to make it to the shelf, due to the increasing regimentation of category management and planograms.
TV advertising, which sparked SN's quest, does not have the impact on viewers that it used to have, he added.
Like Fairway, Pathmark's Harlem store on 125th Street was chaotic, but in a manner that was not fun. SN could find no carts, and merchandise was tumbled around the floors and displays -- particularly in Aisle 8, the center seasonal aisle, where beer, candy, Styrofoam cups and school supplies were stocked. At least every item was price marked. There was a long line at the customer-service counter with people getting rain checks on sold-out sale items, and it took half an hour to check out. A fellow shopper told SN a couple of factors played into the situation: The store is always busiest after work, and it was the last day of the "Below Half Price" sale. SN's visit lasted from 6 to 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 11.
In the plus column, SN found boxes of Glad Press 'n Seal, though price information was not apparent and had to wait until checkout, where SN found the price was $2.99.
The store had one of the new Mexican Hot Pockets flavors, Beef Taco, and SN got the last one. The shelf price said $2.99, though using the retailer's Advantage price discount card knocked the price down to $2.
Pathmark's Pike Slip store was visited on Friday, Sept. 12, between 7 and 8 p.m. It was neat, and prices were easy to find, including the private-label olive oil that went unpriced the day before in Harlem. There was a much different assortment, as the downtown neighborhood borders on Chinatown. There was more soy, more Boca Burgers, and a nice section of natural and organic cereals. The Palmolive dish wipes were $3.99, and they had the Cheese and Chicken Quesadilla Hot Pockets, as well as the Beef Taco.
Several industry sources familiar with the new product introductions told SN that Clorox, owner of the Glad brand, had problems producing enough of the new wrap, and had imposed allocations. Some got no deliveries until after the TV ads began airing. But, the sources said, Manhattan stores should have had Press 'n Seal on their shelves by Sept. 12, which happened to be the final day of SN Undercover's store visits. On that day, indeed, the Pike Slip Pathmark had it, as did the Pathmark of Harlem, the day before. Information on the manufacturer's Web site points up the plethora of channels with which supermarkets compete. Press 'n Seal Wrap is available nationally at mass merchandisers such as Target, Wal-Mart and Kmart, plus local grocers, drug stores and club stores for a suggested retail price of $2.99 for a 75-foot roll, the Web site said.
After trying three other chains, SN first found Palmolive Dish Wipes in Food Emporium, in Original and Lemon Grove scent, at $4.39 for 20 cloths presoaked with detergent. That store, at 50th Street and Eighth Avenue, has a very well-stocked foils and wraps section. "Food Emporium moves faster than most," said Rosengarten, the consultant, who was one of the founders of Food Emporium.
Interestingly, when SN visited Colorado Springs Sept. 17 to 19 for a Grocery Manufacturers of America conference, Palmolive Dish Wipes were prominently displayed in a front endcap in the first store visited, an Albertsons. The price was $3.49 with the Preferred card; $4.49 without it.
BIG APPLE, LOW-CARB
NEW YORK -- Low-carbohydrate sections are increasingly making their way into Manhattan's urban shopping options. Fairway Market's Broadway store has one on its second floor. Patrons encounter the prominently signed Low-Carb section just past the body care and supplements, and opposite the checkouts.
The section is displayed on a Metro rack that features Atkins Advantage bars, Keto brand cereals at $4.99, Atkins canned shakes, Go-Lean canned shakes, Morning Start bars, and cans of Spiro-Tein, priced at $18.19 or $19.68 for 1.12-pound cans of soy protein powder. During SN's visit, soy chips were placed on the endcap, and small bags of Atkins Crunchers snacks were at the checkout.
The Food Emporium, too, had a "Lo-Carb, No-Carb Solutions" endcap section, in its unit on Eighth Avenue near 50th Street. The section contained Atkins Bake Mix and Shake Mix, but was out of stock on Atkins Ready to Drink chocolate, vanilla and strawberry. The shelf-tag indicated they were $3.19. The section also included Atkins bars and Gourmet Snickerdoodle Cookies, a package for $4.59, with a shelf-talker that said it provides 2 net carbs per serving.
The new D'Agostino's Fresh store, at 110th Street and Broadway, has a low-carbohydrate section; this was the only store SN visited that carried Michelob Ultra, the low-carb beer. D'Agostino's Fresh, which opened Sept. 7, had an impressive beer selection overall, as most of its stores do.
The low-carb/Atkins aisle was signed at the end of the aisle, in the usual manner, but the section itself had no special signage, as it did in the Food Emporium and Fairway. D'Agostino's Fresh store's low-carb section was six feet long and nine shelves high.