Nap Time is Over for Baby Food. A number of imaginative products, many of them organic, are starting to reawaken category sales.
“I think what is happening now is pretty amazing,” said Dave Bennett, co-owner of Mollie Stone's Markets, Mill Valley, Calif. “I think it is only going to grow and grow.”
Bennett's optimistic outlook is all the more telling because the chain used to sell baby food grinders.
“Our roots are in the health food business,” he noted. “We held classes and would teach our customers how to boil the food, use the grinders and put it in ice cube trays to be stored and used later.”
That process has come full circle, with third-party manufacturers doing the work. “Now we are selling these similar frozen baby foods,” he said.
Shelf-stable or frozen, baby food is fresher, more nutritious and more fun than ever before. The organic seal almost seems secondary on packages promoting more nutritious formulations and interesting flavor combinations. The spotlight on the baby aisle right now is a natural extension of the excitement in natural and organic food in general.
Parents have noticed and are responding. According to the Nielsen Co., organic baby food sales climbed 21% to $116 million in 2006, while overall baby food sales in food, drug and mass stores rose 3.1% to $3.7 billion, turning around what had been a flat market.
In a recent report, market research firm Mintel credits organics, along with new toddler foods, for perking up sales.
“Moms want to feed their babies foods they know are close to their natural state,” said Erin Fowler, a Mintel analyst. “They want foods to be prepared just how they would prepare their baby's food, if they had the time and opportunity.”
Hard to believe, but in many respects the baby food category has gone relatively untouched for decades. Shelf-stable offerings of pureed peas, apples, bananas and the like have driven sales and sustained and nourished the infants of America.
But now consumer demand is catching up with the baby aisle, and a lot is changing. For starters, there has been a flurry of activity in the fresh/frozen segment. In just the last year, several fledgling organic frozen baby food brands have been making their way into supermarket cases. Launched mostly by new mothers, these startups — with names like Happy Baby, Bobo Baby, Plum Organics and Mother Hen — are small boutique operations that are poised for explosive growth. These new brands provide higher margins for retailers, peace of mind for mothers and more authentic flavors for babies.
Shazi Visram, founder of New York-based Happy Baby, felt “there was a screaming need for an alternative to jarred baby food.” A self-proclaimed organic eater, she was moved to start a business after hearing a friend with twins lament that she didn't have time to make her own fresh baby food, something she had wanted to do.
Introduced last year, Happy Baby was first carried in the city by Gourmet Garage and the home delivery service FreshDirect. It has now branched into Whole Foods, Wild Oats and Target, and is breaking into Publix. Packaged in ice cube trays, the 14-flavor line has cute names like Chick Chick for a chicken item, and Yes Peas, offering a hint of mint. Along with staples like apple and carrots, there is Baby Dhal, a mix of red lentils, potatoes and carrots with cinnamon and coriander.
Gigi Lee Chang, the creator of Plum Organics, also in New York, got started after her 9-month-old son wouldn't eat the jarred baby food she purchased on the road during a trip. He had become accustomed to the fresh foods she made for him at home.
“There is time and effort to making it,” said Chang. “But also, many parents aren't confident. They are concerned that they would not be choosing the right foods for their babies.”
After launching in September 2006, Happy Baby is now in 700 doors, including Whole Foods, Wild Oats, Mollie Stone's Markets and, soon, Wegmans Food Markets.
Canadian brand Bobo Baby made its U.S. debut this summer. Along with selected health food outlets, the first traditional supermarket to take on the brand has been Acme Markets, a division of Supervalu. Founder Kalpna Solanki also stepped into her own business by chance after making baby food for her daughter and realizing there were no similar products on the market.
The general-market brands have been keeping up with the trends as well. Industry leader Gerber relaunched and embellished its organic offerings, and sales have jumped 30% in the last 12 months, according to the company. Gerber has also added a new line of purees and cereals fortified with DHA, the brain-building omega-3 fatty acid naturally found in mother's milk.
Those types of innovations will likely accelerate now that Gerber has been acquired by Nestlé. “We anticipate that the Gerber portfolio will be enhanced, with more nutritious and wholesome product innovations,” said a Gerber spokesman.
At Beech-Nut, infant nutritional needs are being met using a “day-part” strategy. The company has launched Good Morning and Good Evening foods. Morning items are based on soluble fiber to provide a slow, steady release of energy and help balance blood sugar levels, while the evening foods contain protein to help build muscle at night, when most babies do their growing. The line also has probiotics to stimulate the growth of good bacteria in the digestive system, and is free of artificial ingredients and preservatives.
The organic jarred brand Earth's Best, long a niche item, has watched its sales skyrocket in the past year as it works its way onto traditional supermarket shelves.
“[Our sales] are up 27% in natural food stores and 45% in grocery stores,” said Maureen Putnam, chief marketing officer for Hain Celestial, the parent of Earth's Best, who noted, “It's the fastest-growing brand in our portfolio.” Among its host of introductions is a soup segment called “My First Soup.”
Getting children to eat the right foods is more important than ever. Missy Chase Lapine, author of “The Sneaky Chef,” a guide to hiding healthy foods in kids' meals, said children develop eating habits early in life, and that means parents have to start early, too.
“As babies they are just developing their palates. If you can expand their palate early on, as they grow they will be more open to various tastes, including a variety of fruits and vegetables.”
Lapine, who also consults for Beech-Nut, advocates that mothers can even use basic jarred baby foods to build the nutritional value of meals for older children. A carrot and sweet potato puree can add vitamins and take away acidity in a tomato sauce, for example.
The challenge for retailers now is to develop strategies to merchandise these new items, many of which require a cold case. At Mollie Stone's, Bennett said the new perishable baby foods are merchandised next to frozen breakfast items.
“We promote it with in-store demos,” he said, describing ways the chain lets customers know it carries baby products outside of the traditional dry aisle.
Joseph Cool, category manager for natural foods at Coborn's, St, Cloud, Minn., noted that even shelf-stable food merchandising can be tricky. For instance, Earth's Best is located in the natural food section, while the Gerber Organics products are placed with the core Gerber line in the conventional side of the store.
Coborn's doesn't currently offer any frozen baby food brands, but “we have considered picking one up,” said Cool.
- Since in-store tastings aren't really feasible, demos of frozen baby food should focus on product presentation. Be sure to offer coupons.
- Alert customers that frozen baby foods are available by mentions in store fliers and placing signage on freezer doors.
- To cut down on confusion, consider merchandising organic jarred foods in a bumpout or similar display within the main baby aisle.
- Build additional sales of jarred foods by promoting them as supplements to older kids' meals.