The much anticipated rollout of potato chips made with Olean has been well-received, and retailers are hoping that this alternative to fat will revitalize the snack category.
Olean, the brand name for olestra, is being hailed by some as the biggest product innovation since NutraSweet artificial sweetener. Some of the largest supermarket chains in the country, including Kroger Co., Safeway, Ralphs Grocery Co. and Jewel Osco, have even run full-page ads at their own expense announcing the Wow! line of potato chips has arrived on their shelves.
"That is unprecedented. Each week we are surprised because they are doing this on their own," said Lynn Markley, director of public relations at Plano, Texas-based Frito-Lay.
"People are just nuts about this product. We are getting incremental space. We are bringing people back into the snack aisle," she said.
Frito-Lay launched a national advertising program April 20 and conducted a nationwide supermarket parking-lot sampling program April 25.
Although dogged by reports that they rob the body of vitamins and can cause severe stomach cramps and diarrhea, the chips, which contain no fat and half the calories of traditional potato chips, are being purchased by an increasingly overweight and calorie-counting populace.
Barry Scher, vice president for public affairs at Giant Food, Landover, Md., told SN that initial sales show Wow! chips are popular with Giant's shoppers.
"The Wow! chips have been doing very well. We haven't gotten one complaint," said Mark Polsky, senior vice president at Magruder, Rockville, Md., which also operates stores in the Baltimore/Washington area. Polsky said he is merchandising the Wow! chips in-line with the other salty snacks in all his stores.
In New England the Wow! chips have received a warm reception at Big Y Foods, said Peter Dudis, director of category management for the Springfield, Mass.-based chain.
"We find that the trial-size bags are selling quite smoothly, which is very positive," he said.
"The new full-size bags on the shelves are not selling as quickly, but they have only been in the Big Y Stores for a couple of weeks," he added.
One of the first markets to receive Wow! chips was the Pacific Northwest, where they have been "well-received," according to Pat Redmond, a buyer for Rosauers Supermarkets, Spokane, Wash.
"We have not done any separate promotions on them yet. They are just out there on display. There is a lot of talk and everybody is willing to try them, and they seem to be moving real well," Redmond told SN.
Redmond expects the chips to eventually grow the entire salty snack category. He noted that the new chip will attract some new people to the snack aisle, as well as take some customers away from the full-fat category, so long as the taste of the product remains acceptable.
To date, salty snacks cooked in Olean include Wow! potato chips, Ruffles and Dorito chips from Frito-Lay; Fat-Free Pringles from Procter & Gamble; and Fat-Free Ritz Crackers and Fat-Free Wheat Thins from Nabisco.
"All our feedback has been very positive. We have not had any negative complaints," said Ann Smith, a spokeswoman for Parsippany, N.J.-based Nabisco. She added that the test market was backed with two flights of coupons and sampling.
Olean, a synthetic fat-free cooking oil created by Procter & Gamble, Cincinnati, is derived from soy beans. Its molecules are too large to be absorbed by the body, so they pass through.
In February, after test marketing done last year, both Frito-Lay and Procter & Gamble announced they were taking their products national, with distribution to be completed by this summer. Nabisco is completing a one-year test market in Marion, Ind., and Grand Junction, Colo., and is expected to shortly decide on expansion possibilities.
Becky Yaeger Kimbell, a spokeswoman for P&G, said now that construction on an Olean manufacturing plant in Cincinnati is completed, retailers will soon see other snacks made with Olean on store shelves.
"We have contracts with about a dozen snack manufacturers," she said. "At this time the only ones who are able to confirm are Nabisco and Fat-Free Pringles and Frito-Lay. The others haven't made their intentions public."
Yaeger Kimbell noted that Wow! chips are already available in more than 30 states, while Fat-Free Pringles are available in the Cincinnati, Dayton and Toledo markets in Ohio as the first stage of a national rollout.
Most retailers contacted by SN said initial movement on the Wow! products look promising.
Gary Price, vice president of merchandising at Minyard Food Stores, Coppell, Texas, said it is expected that Wow! chips will be an even bigger hit than Baked Lays.
Price said Minyard hasn't really received any comments from its customers, although the Wow! chips have been in the Dallas/Fort Worth market for only a few weeks.
What created a problem, he said, was that television reports said the product would be out earlier than it actually became available.
Jo Natale, a spokeswoman for Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., said the Wow! chips were introduced in Rochester in early March, and that it was too soon to tell how they were doing.
However, What a Chip!, the chain's own fat-free item, which uses a unique process to squeeze and vacuum out the cooking oil from the surface of the chip, has been doing very well, Natale said.
One of the original test markets for the Frito-Lay product was Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where it was test marketed under the Max brand last year. Wow! is expected to be reintroduced in Cedar Rapids some time this month.
"We have people calling all the time asking when we are going to get Wow! chips. I tell them to call Indianapolis because they have the Wow! chips there," said Jim Lingo, a store director at Hy-Vee in Cedar Rapids.
When Max was being tested in Cedar Rapids it was very well-received, Lingo said, and he expects the same reception for Wow!, Fat-Free Pringles and any other olestra-based products.
Tom Roesner, direct-store-delivery buyer/merchandiser at Seaway Food Town, Maumee, Ohio, expressed concern about the higher price tags on olestra products.
"A 16-ounce bag, which they call the super-size of the Wow! product, is retailing for $5.29, compared with $2.99 for a traditional bag of potato chips in that size. My personal opinion is that they are going to take the majority of the customers right out of the market," he said.
At Seaway Food Town the olestra products are merchandised next to their full-fat counterparts.
"The Pringles are in our warehouse section where they have always been, and the Wow! are in the Frito-Lay section. Within those sections they are separated from the regular chips," he said.
Roesner is worried the Fat-Free Pringles packaging looks too much like the regular Pringles tube, and consumers may be confused about which product they are buying. He said the FDA warning on the label about possible stomach ailments may scare some potential shoppers away.
"We sample around the office with our clerical staff, and there were many, many employees who would not even try them after they read the warning label [on the package]," he said.
"We are doing sampling in the stores. We started with the Pringles first, and it is a little too early to tell what the reaction is. The real indicator will be the repeat purchases, if there is any and how often," he said.
Much of the concern about olestra has been generated by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer watchdog group headquartered in Washington, which has been very vocal in its opposition to the synthetic fat.
Michael F. Jacobson, CSPI's executive director, said the organization has received several hundred phone calls over the last few weeks from people who have gotten sick on Wow! chips. He noted that although in the current climate of food-borne illnesses it can never be proven with certainty that olestra made the people sick, it is reasonable to draw that hypothesis.
P&G's Yaeger Kimbell said a double-blind "Rechallenge Study" conducted with consumers who had problems with Olean showed "no significant differences in how they responded with the Olean chips or the full fat."