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Blends are livening up the spice aisle. In interviews with 10 retailers and several leading spice manufacturers across the country, SN learned that while the spice category as a whole may be fairly flat, the action is in spice blends, mixes and seasoned salt subcategories.Consumers, they said, are turning to spice blends and seasoned salts as an easy way to enhance the flavor of healthier but often

Blends are livening up the spice aisle. In interviews with 10 retailers and several leading spice manufacturers across the country, SN learned that while the spice category as a whole may be fairly flat, the action is in spice blends, mixes and seasoned salt subcategories.

Consumers, they said, are turning to spice blends and seasoned salts as an easy way to enhance the flavor of healthier but often blander tasting foods.

Manufacturers, in turn, are devoting more attention to blends, trotting out new varieties and formulations to maintain the segment's momentum.

And retailers are watching sales of blends rise, especially when merchandised on shelf extenders placed in front of other grocery categories and perishables. Frequent advertising and couponing also help increase volume for the segment, they said.

Buyers said they are also impressed with the high margins offered by spices and the small amount of shelf space they require.

Spice blends are broken down into four main categories, according to research from a leading manufacturer. The bulk of dollar sales of spice blends (49.5%) are made up of a garlic base, followed by seasoned salt (27.2%), specialty herb-based (15%) and seasoned pepper (8.3%).

One of the busiest segments is ethnic dishes such as Thai and Chinese. And anything Mexican is hot.

"It is a fact that the blends are doing better than the straight spices," said Lori Latta, a buyer for Trader Joe's, a South Pasadena, Calif.-based specialty grocery chain that operates 62 stores in California and Arizona.

To accommodate the demand for spice blends, Trader Joe's recently introduced a line of six private-label blends packaged in glass jars that are free of salt and monosodium glutamate. It is next considering a curry blend, she said.

"On the whole we did have a little bit of growth last year from the spice category, and we have seen a little bit more growth coming from the blends," said Vicki Drummond, buyer at Valu Foods, Baltimore.

"We sell a lot of the premixed stuff, like meat loaf seasoning, beef stew seasoning and chili seasoning. They are all doing well. We sometimes advertise them, and we merchandise them in-aisle, unless we have a shipper," said Carl McMillan, general manager at Town & Country Supermarkets, Hardy, Ark.

"We are selling more spice mixes because we have begun to attract an upper-scale customer that has more disposable income to spend on those types of things. While we're really targeting the upper-scale customer, we continue to do a good business with our middle- and lower-income customers, too," said Kevin Gates, grocery buyer at Winn-Dixie Stores' Montgomery, Ala., division.

"Over the last two years, [suppliers] have introduced quite a few different blends and flavors. The margins on the blends are about the same as the regular spices, which are high, and of course we love that," said Aron Rodgers, grocery buyer-merchandiser at Harris Teeter, Charlotte, N.C.

Sales for the total spice category could be considered bland, judging from scanning data gathered by Information Resources Inc., Chicago. For the 52 weeks ended Dec. 5, 1993, supermarket sales of spices reached $1.4 billion, a 0.3% increase over the previous year.

IRI did not break down the spices sales data by individual formulations. However, a study commissioned by Lawry's Foods, Los Angeles, a subsidiary of Thomas J. Lipton Ltd., found that the spice blend segment is growing at a faster rate than pure spices.

The study found that spice blends offer retailers an average of $14.72 in sales per square foot per store per week, while pure spices and extracts had sales per square foot per week of $10.27.

The edge relates to consumer demands for convenience. "Spice blends are growing because they can be used more casually. The reason for the flat growth of pure spices is that people aren't cooking from scratch as much and pure spices often depend on traditional recipes," said Joe Scaccia, director of product management at Lawry's.

He said the seasoned salt category generates sales of about $80 million a year, and recently surpassed table salt in dollar volume.

"Sodium intake from pure table salt is down a couple of percentage points each year, but items like seasoned salt and garlic salt continue to grow," he said.

Other manufacturers also are responding to the consumer trend.

"The spice blends are where we are concentrating our growth," said Sandra Hu, public relations manager at Specialty Brands, San Francisco, which makes Durkee and Spice Islands spices, and the Durkee Grill Creations blend line formulated for beef, chicken and fish.

Camille Appel, manager of consumer communications at McCormick & Co., Sparks, Md., said, "People are using them to sprinkle on at the table or just before serving. This is becoming extremely popular. It adds a little variety to their foods, and we have done the work for them in putting these spices together in the right proportions."

Some retailers said Mexican spice blends and mixes have performed the strongest so far.

"We have seen some growth in the new Mexican seasonings, and some of those are doing better than they have done in the past. We are carrying a new guacamole mix and a salsa mix that are doing fairly well," said Peggy Ingersoll, a grocery buyer for Nash Finch Co. based in Lincoln, Neb. She added that the way the spices are merchandised varies from store to store among the wholesaler's independent retail customers.

"Mexican is growing no matter what area you're in. Also, the standards in the category continue their popularity. The lemon pepper, which has always done well, continues to do well," said Mike Muscanell, corporate grocery merchandising manager at Grand Union Co., Wayne, N.J.

"We have a large Hispanic trade and we sell a lot of spices. The ethnic spices sell well for us," said Mike Post, grocery buyer at Morgan's Holiday Quality Foods, Cottonwood, Calif. "Some stores do a lot better with the spices than others, depending on the population that surrounds them," he added.

One retailer in Texas said large-sized packages of spices sell especially briskly, again due to the popularity of Mexican cooking. "We carry a lot of the large sizes because of our large Hispanic trade," said Gerald Elder, supervisor for the 19-unit Lawrence Bros. chain in Sweetwater, Texas.

Many retailers told SN that cross-merchandising spice blends with other grocery items, as well as in perishables sections, is the most effective way to build sales.

"We merchandise our spices in the spice aisle, and also cross-merchandise them with shelf extenders in other areas, such as in the pasta section, by salad dressings, in produce, etc.," said Drummond of Valu Foods.

"We don't usually cross-merchandise with the meat department because we don't like to clog up our perishables departments with cross-merchandising, but in the grocery aisles, related items would indeed be cross-merchandised," said Muscanell of Grand Union. "We would put a popcorn salt blend over with the popcorn, or a mix of different spices over in the instant potato section."

Rodgers said Harris Teeter uses "a lot of shelf extenders, and we merchandise some of the spice blends on them. We have about 30 shelf extenders scattered throughout the store. They are in the grocery sections in front of the item that the spice would blend with.

"We have the tip cards in different places throughout the store, including the spice aisle. One place where we have really good spice sales is in the seafood department," Rodgers said.

"Most of our spice blends are merchandised in the produce department. We advertise the spices quite frequently, and since they are in the produce department they are almost always on display," said Elder of Lawrence Bros.

"We merchandise our spices in 8-foot sections where we have our branded product. For our Hispanic trade we also merchandise a 4-foot peg board, with the bag stuff in our Hispanic section. We also have Oriental spices in our Oriental section," said Post of Morgan's Holiday Quality Foods.