Sales of low-fat and fat-free cookies and crackers are soaring in the grocery aisle. So why isn't the in-store bakery catching the wave?
After watching Nabisco's Snackwell line and products from other packaged food suppliers create new business for grocery, in-store bakery executives all over have been testing the water themselves, by either sticking in their toe with a cookie or two, or diving in with a broader program.
But in many cases, the good-for-you cookies at the in-store bakery are not riding as high as expected, said bakery executives interviewed by SN.
The retailers named higher price points and disappointing taste as two problems holding the healthy treats back. However, just as powerful a factor, they said, is the apparent reluctance among many consumers to give up the indulgent pleasures that only a not-so-good-for-you cookie can offer -- and they head to the bakery department, not the grocery aisle, to find that pleasure.
"Gourmet is a cookie category that needs to be recognized," said an official with a large Northeastern chain. "Ours are going great. There's good growth there and they're more than $4 a pound."
John Smolders, bakery manager at West Linn Thriftway, West Linn, Ore., explained it this way: "If you're on a diet, why would you come into the bakery? People come here to treat themselves."
Still, some bakery merchandisers said sugar-free diet cookies are selling well in some areas. But where chains across the country are seeing surprising volume increases is elsewhere: in ordinary varieties such as chocolate chip, and in indulgent, gourmet cookies, like whipped cream macaroons.
Of the three types of cookies offered by Certified Grocers Midwest, Hodgkins, Ill., its sugar-free or low-sugar "diet" cookies, offered in 12 varieties, are the hottest sellers. The wholesaler also offers six varieties of what it terms "health-conscious" cookies -- fat-free or low-fat types. It also has some 50 to 60 varieties of the "everyday" cookies, according to Jeff Serritella, bakery sales manager at Certified Grocers.
"And the butter cookies -- the ones that aren't so good for you -- keep selling well," said Serritella. Sales of the fat-free and low-fat cookies haven't caught on, he said, because the health-conscious cookies are at least 50 cents to a dollar higher a pound and the taste isn't there. "It hurts sales and it doesn't get the repeat sales that we'd like to get."
Harris Teeter, Charlotte, N.C., offers three subcategories of cookies at its in-store bakeries: ordinary varieties such as chocolate chip, peanut butter, oatmeal raisin, walnut nugget and sugar; gourmet cookies such as cranberry walnut, macadamia and white chocolate, and holiday cookies.
"Everyday" cookies sell the best, said Doug Held, bakery manager at Harris Teeter. They are packaged in 12-count containers, as well as a recently introduced 32-count container of smaller-sized cookies.
"The trend is that cookie sales are rising for our everyday cookies. With the introduction of the 32-count, that will add to that growth," he said.
"I haven't tasted anything with low-fat or no-fat yet that really tasted good to me," Held added. About a year and a half ago, Tom Thumb Food & Drugs, Dallas, began offering about six varieties of low-fat cookies and four kinds of sugar-free, including French butter, shortbread, applesauce and a cookie bar.
They are popular with diabetics and fitness-oriented people, said Starla Burkhalter, bakery merchandiser at Tom Thumb. In spite of the popularity of low-fat and sugar-free cookies with specific customer groups, however, everyday cookies will continue to sell strongly, she said. "People who are fat-conscious will be buying these [good-for-you cookies], but there are so many people who don't watch their weight," she said. Thrifty Foods, Burlington, Wash., has a variety of signature cookies in its stable called Thrifty's Own. The top-selling products are cowboy cookies with coconut, oatmeal, chocolate chips and walnuts, as well as coconut macaroons and whipped cream macaroons made with real cream.
"We have them in our ads, so we promote them quite a bit," said Donna Ward, bakery merchandiser. The department typically merchandises the products in two ways: in the case individually, and packaged by the dozen. "They are $3.29 [per dozen] or 39 cents each. They're priced competitively," she said.
O'Malia Food Markets, Carmel, Ind., offers three tiers of cookies: everyday scratch cookies, low-priced cookies and gourmet cookies.
The gourmet segment represents "the ultimate cookie," said Ron Williams, director of bakery operations at O'Malia. "It is full of fat, full of chunks and it's the $4.99-a-pound cookie."
Meanwhile, O'Malia is staying out of the healthy cookie segment, even though Williams perceives its customers would want such products.
"I have a demand for it, but we will not sell it unless we find it tastes good first." West Linn Thriftway offers several fat-free varieties, including walnut fudge and butter pecan, but rich, indulgent cookies are really the bakery manager's specialty, said Smolders.
He said his best sellers are filled Dutch butter cookies, stollen (apricot- or raspberry-filled cookies with a graham cracker crust) and an authentic Dutch rum-based, chocolate-dipped almond creation.