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Proactive Culture

Probiotic enhanced products are enjoying growing popularity in dairy cases as retailers educate shoppers about their benefits

Probiotics — friendly bacteria that can have health benefits such as supporting the immune system and promoting digestive health — have gone mainstream, moving from specialty stores to food retailers in the form of enhanced yogurt, live-cultured foods, cheese, drinks and supplements.

“Probiotics are a big part of our supplements offering, for general use and for specific use by men, women and children,” said Wendy McLain, health and beauty aids merchandiser at PCC Natural Markets in Seattle. “Some lines are specifically formulated to ease irregularity, replenish intestinal tract flora following treatments with antibiotics, and support colon function. Others are designed to aid absorption of essential nutrients, such as calcium,” said McLain, later noting that year-over-year sales of probiotic supplements are up 11%.

More shoppers are becoming familiar with the term probiotics. According to a Natural Marketing Institute report, 60% of the general population recognized the term “probiotics” in 2009, compared with only 14% in 2004. “The increase in consumer awareness of the term has been pretty significant,” said Greg Stephens, vice president of strategic consulting at the Natural Marketing Institute.

While awareness of the term probiotics is growing, the Natural Marketing Institute survey indicated that consumers aren't exactly sure what the products do, with 55% of those surveyed not able to associate any benefits.

Lack of consumer knowledge about these products could be one barrier to growth, preventing shoppers from trying them. “If they don't know the benefit of [a probiotics product] they're sure not going to see any reason to consume it,” said Stephens.

“I think there is a general sense of what [probiotics] are and that's increasing. I'm not sure that people understand the specifics that well,” said Mary Ellen Sanders, probiotics consultant, Dairy & Food Culture Technologies, Centennial, Colo. The fact that probiotic benefits are strain and dose specific can contribute to consumer confusion, she added. As an example, she contrasted probiotics, a term that groups diverse strains of microorganisms, with vitamin C, which is just one nutrient.

“We're marketing something with a fairly nuanced nutritional meaning in a mainstream channel,” said Jay Jacobowitz, president of Brattleboro, Vt.-based Retail Insights, a natural product industry consultant.

Increased consumer interest in probiotics coupled with a lack of product knowledge gives retailers opportunity to educate consumers and tap into the 25% of people that told the Natural Marketing Institute they would like to get more probiotics in their diet.

Jacobowitz said stores can reinforce probiotic product ad messages with signage, sampling and tying in nutritional assets already in place in the store, such as nutritional ratings programs or in-store nutritionists.

Delhaize-owned Hannaford Supermarkets, based in Scarborough, Maine, has registered dietitians in 40 stores who are available on the sales floor, and for healthy tours, healthy living classes, school visits and community events, said Julie Greene, director of healthy living.

“A popular topic for shoppers is ‘Digestive Health,’ where content includes information, tips and recipes for high-fiber diets as well as other ideas, such as how to use probiotics to improve digestion,” Greene said, noting Hannaford encourages shoppers to check with their health care providers before they take supplements or make changes to their diets.

Hannaford also promotes its probiotic products through its healthy living e-newsletter, and features, tips, and recipes in its Fresh magazine. “In addition to our classes on digestive health, Hannaford participated in Dannon's Activia Challenge, which encourages shoppers to try the product for a few weeks to see if it has a positive impact on their digestion,” said Greene.

Stephanie Steiner, grocery merchandiser at PCC, said, “Probiotics aren't new to PCC shoppers, who tend to be well-informed about the natural ways to promote their personal health.”

Still, Steiner said PCC does “host sampling events during which customers who may not be familiar with probiotics or, more commonly, new probiotic products, can try them and ask questions.” She added that natural product manufacturers speak directly to shoppers at PCC's annual Healthy Living Fairs. PCC also offers information about probiotics on its website and through its trained staff.

Although a whopping 90% of people over 65 take supplements, the Natural Marketing Institute found the awareness of the term probiotics decreases to 50% with these consumers. Since most of this group are already interested and taking supplements, Stephens suggested the over-65 crowd may be good to target. Retailers could cater probiotic information events to the needs of these consumers.

Weaving specialty items like probiotic products amidst other products exposes shoppers to foods they might not seek out. Peter Augustyn, dairy and frozen food manager at Brigido's Markets in Slatersville, R.I., made sure to incorporate his probiotic products with other dairy items after the store's efforts to segregate organic products to one aisle resulted in shoppers walking right by the aisle. Augustyn said shoppers associate organic products with additional expense. “But now that [the organic products] are integrated throughout the store they seem to do better because people will see a comparison,” he said.

Augustyn said that probiotic products in Brigido's are slowly gaining momentum, including a kefir product he brought into the store 4 or 5 months ago. He added that it will take time for customers to get used to these products. Brigidio's offers food demos to promote products, and has demoed probiotic yogurt. “With the economy the way that it is, people are not willing to necessarily spend extra when they are not sure of a product,” he said.

The trend is growing in other channels as well. Jamba Juice, the smoothie chain that operates freestanding shops as well as in-store units in supermarkets such as Safeway and Whole Foods Market, last week announced the launch of probiotic fruit and yogurt blends. In addition, Jamba Juice will be offering a probiotic “boost” that can be added to any smoothie. The company will be promoting the new products with $1- to $2-off coupons on its website on Jan. 10-23.

“More and more consumers are seeking functional beverages and foods to help solve a variety of dietary needs and we wanted to offer a new product that is innovative, nutritious, delicious and serves a special purpose,” Susan Shields, chief marketing officer for Jamba Juice, said in a press release.

“Whether you are seeking to eat healthier as a part of your New Year's resolution or just want a product that helps support immune system functioning and aids in digestion of food and nutrients, Jamba's Probiotic Fruit and Yogurt Blends is a perfect fit to deliver on those daily functional needs.”

Promoting and offering probiotic products may give retailers the opportunity to show shoppers their concern for their nutrition. “You're getting a lot of lift or a lot of marketing resources from the manufacturers of probiotics products putting momentum behind any nutritionally oriented messages,” said Jacobowitz. “So it would help to multiply and intensify the retailer's market position as a store that's interested in helping the consumer make better nutritional choices by piggybacking on the awareness and promotion of probiotics products.”