Health concerns surrounding olestra haven't hurt sales of salty snacks containing the fat substitute, retailers in test markets report.
Frito-Lay's Max chips line and Procter & Gamble's Fat-Free Pringles -- both of which are made with olestra -- are selling well, with few consumer complaints, retailers told SN.
"There's a huge market for no-fat products," said John Siepman, grocery manager at a Randalls unit in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, one of the test markets. "These products [from P&G and Frito-Lay] enable people to go ahead and enjoy potato chips and snacks like that."
The Food and Drug Administration, Rockville, Md., approved olestra as safe, but mandated that all products containing the fat substitute carry a list of possible side-effects, which include the tendency for loose stools, abdominal cramping and the inhibition of absorption of absorption of some vitamins and nutrients.
Because of the possible side-effects, olestra, marketed under the brand name Olean, has become a target of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Washington, which said it should be banned from the marketplace.
Columbus, Ohio, the backyard to Procter & Gamble's Cincinnati headquarters, was chosen for the Fat-Free Pringles test, which began in September and is slated to run indefinitely, according to the company.
The Pringles debut came after Plano, Texas-based Frito-Lay began testing its Max line of Doritos, Lay's potato chips, Tostitos tortilla chips and Ruffles potato chips in Eau Claire, Wis.; Grand Junction, Colo., and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The test began in April and will run in Cedar Rapids until at least the end of the year. The Eau Claire and Grand Junction tests will end when stores run out of product, said Lynn Markley, company spokeswoman.
At a Copps Food Center in Eau Claire, Wis., sales of Max products have accounted for about 14% of the weekly sales of salty snacks, said Greg Gustafson, direct-store-delivery buyer at the chain.
"The more publicity [the snacks] got, the better they sold," Gustafson said. "There were a lot of people from out of the area coming in and buying them."
Grocers in other test markets said they experienced similar consumer interest. A Meijer store in Columbus received phone calls from consumers in Michigan and New York who wanted the product.
"We had so many calls [from outside the state], it was almost like a mail-order business," said Dixie Burmeister, consumer information coordinator at City Markets, Grand Junction, Colo.
Overall, consumer reception at stores has been positive, despite advertising efforts by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has been actively publicizing the negative side-effects associated with olestra.
City Markets' Burmeister said the CSPI began advertising when the products first launched, but that ads haven't been as frequent in recent weeks.
She received 12 to 16 letters from shoppers who complained about the products, the majority of which were form letters drafted by the CSPI.
"I had about four or five people who said they had a reaction to [the products]," Burmeister said.
Burmeister said City Markets' customers will be disappointed to see the products removed from stores at the end of the test period.
"They wanted to stock their freezers because they were upset to think that they won't be able to get them for a while," she said.
"I believe retailers have increased their orders because they knew there was probably going to be a rush," Markley of Frito-Lay said.
Grocers said part of the success is due to strong manufacturer support and promotions.
"Procter & Gamble has done extensive advertising, including radio, television and print ads," said Karen Bennett, spokeswoman at Big Bear, Columbus, Ohio.
"They did in-store sampling the first weekend the product was available and they delivered samples to households in the metropolitan area."
City Markets is merchandising Frito-Lay's Max line on endcaps, in-aisle shelves and the salty snacks gondola. Additional space has been allocated on self-standing displays throughout the store.
When P&G first introduced Fat-Free Pringles, a Meijer store in Columbus stocked the cans on a center display with banners supplied by P&G, said Gary Knight, a store-level grocery manager with the chain. He said the chips were initially priced at $1.79, but were lowered to $1.69.
Columbus-area Kroger stores also are retailing Fat-Free Pringles for $1.69, a red tag special. Rossanna Klawon, a store manager at a Columbus store, said P&G helped the chain reset its shelves to make room for the test products.
"We have a customer business development team that helps our clients set their shelves, but it's up to the individual accounts on how they do it," said Lisa Jester, company spokeswoman for P&G.
Big Bear has treated the products as if they were part of a line expansion, said Bennett.
"We rearranged the product that was on the shelf to make room. We also have some special end displays for the product," she added.
P&G's Jester said Olean Pringles have been handled much like any other product test. The company offers the trade the product, and retailers decide what they want to order, she said.
Frito-Lay works differently, according to Rick Walker, general manager at an Eau Claire-based Pick 'n Save. To participate in the test, Walker said, he had to commit an endcap to Max snack chips throughout the test period, plus a proportionate amount of in-aisle shelf space.
"We gave them four to six feet in the aisle," Walker said.
Those conditions were not part of the agreement at a Randalls store in Eau Claire.
"[Frito-Lay] had a 4-foot section for the test, and two or three times during the test we ran them on an extra display," said Roger Risen, assistant store manager. Finding room for the products wasn't difficult because the test came after Eagle Snacks discontinued its products.
"It worked out that Eagle went out of business about the time that this all happened. Frito-Lay was willing to pay for the space for the test," Risen said.
Procter & Gamble and Frito-Lay are pricing Olean products higher than their regular salty snacks, according to an informal SN poll in test markets.
Procter & Gamble's Pringles, 6 ounces.
Meijer $1.69 $1.69
Kroger $1.69 $1.49
Buehler Foods $1.89 $1.50
Big Bear N/C N/C
EAU CLAIRE, WIS.
Frito-Lay's chips, 13 ounces.
Copps Food Center $4.79 $2.99
Pick 'n Save $4.59 $2.39 to $2.79
Randalls $4.99 $2.99
CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA
Frito-Lay's Chips, 13 ounces.
Randalls $4.19 $2.99
Sun Mart 2 for $5, 2 for $5,
(regularly $4.19) (regularly $2.99)
GRAND JUNCTION, COLO.
Frito-Lay's Chips, 13 ounces.
City Markets $3.59 $2.29
Price checks were conducted at the following store locations: Meijer, 5800 N. Chantry Dr.; Kroger, Northern Lights Shopping Center; Buehler Foods, 800 W. Central Ave.; Copps Food Center, 3310 E. Hamilton Ave.; Pick 'n Save, 2717 Birch St.; Randalls, 2615 London Rd. (Eau Claire, Wis.); Randall's, 1332 Edgewood Rd. (Cedar Rapids, Iowa); Sun Mart, 2001 Blairs Ferry Rd., and City Markets, 2830 North Ave.