Low-sodium and light items are helping the canned produce category fare better in competition against fresh and frozen counterparts.
The key may be that some consumers are getting smarter about the nutritional qualities of products such as canned vegetables with lower sodium and canned fruits packed in lighter syrup or fruit juice, said supermarket buyers and category managers.
Retailers said this niche is slowly and steadily gaining favor with consumers. It is one way that more accessible nutrition
labels are having a positive effect in the canned goods aisle, they said.
"The growth we're getting is coming from the [products featuring] reduced sodium and natural juice," said Mark Knowlton, a category manager for Kroger Co.'s Columbus, Ohio, division, Westerville, Ohio.
"The trend toward low-sodium and low-sugar canned goods has been happening for the last couple of years, and while it is still a small part of the business, it is the one part of the business that is still growing," said Knowlton, summarizing the views of many of the executives questioned by SN.
Retailers reported that sales of canned fruits and vegetables overall have been lackluster for years, largely because consumers have been seeking out fresh and frozen produce as part of a regimen for a healthy diet. According to the Washington-based Steel Packaging Council, many consumers mistakenly believe that all canned goods are high in sodium and preservatives, when often the opposite is true.
The council is offering encouragement to grocery retailers and wholesalers to arrange in-store promotions of canned goods and use other ways to change that perception, as part of a $12.5 million consumer awareness program it will conduct over the next five years.
But some retailers are already seeing a change in some consumers' attitudes toward canned produce.
"Our sales of low-sodium canned vegetables and canned fruits in light syrup and fruit juice have been seeing steady increases," said Pat Redmond, a merchandiser and grocery buyer with Rosauers Supermarkets, Spokane, Wash. "They now encompass about 15% of our canned goods sales, and are increasing all of the time."
Redmond agreed that better educated consumers are spearheading the sales gains. "There is so much awareness of nutrition, sodium, sugar and all of those other items that we're supposed to avoid. There is no question that we have seen an increase in sales," he said.
Redmond added that retailers have seen the availability of lower-sodium and lighter canned goods increase, "and hopefully that will continue."
"The customers are just picking up the light syrups. They are more health conscious and they just want less sugar," said Mike Post, grocery buyer at Morgan's Holiday Markets, Cottonwood, Calif.
"We have been having some success with the reduced-sodium fruits and light vegetables," said Keith Dauterive, senior vice president and director of buying at M&E Food Mart No. 2, a Nederland, Texas-based chain of 38 supermarkets.
"Today the word is just out a little more about these products, plus there are all of the health trends. While the reduced-sodium vegetables and light fruits initially came in with a very limited splash, now they are starting to pick up a little bit," he said.
Dauterive also noted that M&E Food Mart's canned produce sales on the whole have been strong, a more enthusiastic response than that offered by most other retailers.
"Our canned vegetables have been doing real well this year," he said. "There was a slump in the middle of the year, but otherwise there have been deals on all of the vegetables all year long."
Research from the major supermarket sales-tracking organizations show the overall canned goods category to be flat. Neither firm had scanning sales figures broken down by "light" and "regular" varieties.
All canned vegetables had sales of $2 billion, a 1.9% increase, for the 52-week period ended Nov. 11, 1994, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago. On a pound basis, 3.3 billion pounds of canned vegetables were sold, a decline of 2.7%, IRI said.
For the same time period, IRI data showed that shelf-stable canned fruits had supermarket sales of $1.4 billion, a decline of 2.5%. On a pound basis, sales were 1.7 billion pounds, a decline of 1.9%.
Of the 69 varieties of canned fruits and vegetables tracked by Nielsen North America, Northbrook, Ill., 46 posted unit volume declines for the 52 weeks ended June 11, 1994.
Some retailers said the category overall may look lackluster because light and reduced-sodium canned goods have been cannibalizing sales of their traditional brethren.
"Our light and low-sodium canned goods have been selling very well but, to some extent, the low-sodium and light canned goods have been cannibalizing sales of other items," said an official of Harris Teeter, Charlotte, N.C.
Others said they have found the items to be attracting new consumers to the aisle.
"Both the light fruit and low-sodium veggies are attracting new users to the aisle," said Allan Young, a category manager with Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass. "Low-sodium vegetables are purchased by people who have a low-sodium diet, and the fruits in light syrups are attracting people who are trying to cut back on sugar in their diets."
"We don't find the reduced-sodium and light canned products to be taking sales away from the traditional canned items," said Dick Salmon, senior vice president at Melmarkets Foodtown, Garden City, N.Y. "I think they are selling better, by about 5% to 6% more than in prior years, and in some neighborhoods it may be up to 10%."
"I think they may be attracting a nontraditional user -- one that typically won't buy a canned fruit, but may buy one in a natural juice," agreed Kroger's Knowlton. "The convenience packs of fruit cups for lunch boxes is also an area where we have seen some growth, and most of those are coming out only in the natural juice."
Several retailers said the lighter fruit items in particular are a hit.
"It is strictly natural juice -- that is all they want," said Mark Polsky, senior vice president of Magruder, Rockville, Md. "I can't sell canned fruit in heavy syrup. The people won't buy it. I can't even give it away. They are even barely buying anything in light syrup."
Polsky added that sales of reduced-sodium vegetables are also picking up, "but they are still a little slow. The reason for that is that our clientele lends itself to frozens, and usually frozens is all-natural with no salt or little added salt."
Said Post of Morgan's Holiday Markets, "I don't think canned vegetables are a big item anymore, not like they were three or four years ago. But the light fruits have been very successful, and they have taken a lot of sales away from the fruits in the heavy syrups."
Retailers said that the best place to merchandise the low-salt, light and 100%-juice canned goods is right next to like items with traditional nutritional profiles.
"We go by the variety of fruit and then by the brand. We put all our pears together, and within that we have all of the Del Monte pears, S&W pears and Western Family pears together," said Post of Morgan's.
"The cut green beans are together, the French green beans are together, the corns are together, the peas are together. And the fruits are intermingled with the fruits with heavy syrup, usually on the shelf above," said Chuck Lutz, director of purchasing at Virginia Supermarkets, Norfolk, Va.
Knowlton of Kroger said his chain has begun instituting category management to make its canned goods aisle more efficient.
"Traditionally, we had been adding them in, but now we are applying category management, and going back and seeing how big a percentage of the business is canned apricots, for example. How many varieties do we sell, which ones sell, how many heavy halves do you need and light halves," he said.