Prepackaged salads, a continuing influx of fat-free products and the introduction of upscale, regional brands are helping to keep things flowing in the $1 billion-plus salad dressing category.
"These packaged salads are doing great," said an executive at a Mid-Atlantic retailer. "I don't think they're taking anything away from produce sales; they may even be helping them as people buy
things to add to the packaged salad. "At the same time," he added, "people buying these salads need dressings. People are just becoming aware of these salads; so I would think that in the next year or two we'll see some numbers that show growth in things like salad dressings and croutons."
The grocery merchandiser at a Virginia chain agrees. "We now have the packaged salads. I think people are buying more salads, eating healthier, and they want a little something to go on them." "More people are eating salads," said Mike Kilgallon, grocery buyer at Genuardi's Family Markets, Norristown, Pa. "It helps the category."
The grocery merchandiser at the Virginia chain added that consumers previously forced to eliminate dressing from their diets because of the fat content are returning to the salad dressing aisle because of the fat-free alternatives, a statement echoed by other retailers.
"More people are buying fat-frees, especially with the trend with the bagged salads, organic salads and spring mixes," said Tony Lucia, general manager and head grocery buyer at Lunardi's Supermarkets, San Bruno, Calif.
Supermarket retailers are still furiously adding more fat-free, pourable salad dressings to their inventories as the fat-free trend, in vogue up and down center store aisles, shows no signs of becoming outmoded.
"No-fats, fat-frees. That's about it," Rick Hagan, sales manager at Camellia Food Stores, Norfolk, Va., told SN.
"It's fat-free or reduced-fat. Big time," said Debbie Goulding, category manager at Buehler Foods, Jasper, Ind.
"We still see a lot of fat-frees coming out, which isn't really new," said a buyer at a retailer on the West Coast. "But there are more varieties of them. They're also getting into more unique flavors."
Gerry Ostroff, buyer at Affiliated of Florida, Tampa, Fla., agreed that the growth of the fat-free dressings can be attributed to consumers' healthier eating habits: "I think more people are eating salads. That's definitely why the fat-free items are growing."
Burnie Campbell, advertising director at Big Value Discount Foods, Lexington, Ky., contends that consumers are buying more fat-free dressings for their salads, but they are not pouring larger servings in lieu of consuming the fat. "They're going to eat salads more; therefore, the usage is greater," he said.
Some retailers told SN they are adding new dressings from local manufacturers to their sets.
"We've got Armbruster's," said the Virginia chain's grocery merchandiser. "It's a local company that makes two salad dressings, and they're very good -- high-dollar, high-end."
Lucia of Lunardi's cited a similar trend. "The new introductions to salad dressings are no-fat, organic, all-natural. You've got lots of small companies that are doing these things."
Salad items, whether prepackaged or sold separately, can lead to a number of cross-merchandising opportunities for dressings, according to most retailers and wholesalers contacted by SN.
"I would prefer to do it [cross-merchandise] in the produce section," said Campbell of Big Value, "You get far more impulse sales there than you would in the salad dressing aisle."
Camellia's Hagan told SN that he often brings center store salad dressings into produce: "We cross-merchandise [dressings] into the produce department with the three-tiered racks." The racks, Hagan added, are provided by the manufacturer.
Some retailers told SN that space constraints prevent them from cross-merchandising salad dressings into ever-expanding produce departments. However, most incorporate other creative cross-merchandising techniques to marry the two categories.
"The closest we get to cross-merchandising is that we'll run a buy-the-dressing, get-the-lettuce-free deal," said one buyer at a Midwest retailer. "A lot of times we'll run salad-type items and dressing in an ad together."
Other retailers said the combination of salad dressings, croutons and bacon bits is the most popular and convenient method of cross-merchandising the category for their stores.
"We have an extender program over at the salad dressing section with bacon bits and croutons," said Hagan of Camellia. Wire extenders, he added, give the products the best exposure.
"I usually try to keep a display around of bacon bits," said Big Value's Campbell. "Then we've got two or three different brands of croutons that we've experimented with in salad dressing displays."
"We flank it [dressing] with pickles, and then on the left side we flank it with ketchup and barbecue sauce selections. If you're going on a picnic, there's your ketchup, mustard, salad dressing. You can get out of the store and go home," said the merchandiser at the Virginia chain.