While medical reports have contributed to tarnishing the reputation of salt in recent years, this essential but overlooked seasoning still remains a viable category in supermarkets.
Everybody buys salt. Iodized or plain, you can't find a cupboard in the United States that doesn't stock it. For supermarkets, there are three salt businesses: table salt, salt for melting ice and salt for conditioning water. According to retailers interviewed by SN, table salt comes in five categories: private label, brand round cans, kosher salt, sea salt and a reduced sodium salt.
"Salt for us is very promotable, and it's a key item in our ad," said Howard Rukowski, head buyer of grocery for the wholesaler White Rose Food, Carteret, N.J., which serves 600 stores.
It usually goes two for $1, at least a couple of times per quarter, in Met Food and Pioneer stores in the New York metro area, he said. White Rose provides the ad program to that voluntary group of stores operated by independent owners.
Often, salt is an impulse buy; that's why it sells so well on promotion, retailers said.
"The Hispanic population tends to use more salt because of some of their ethnic foods," said Ramona Bennett, division marketing manager for Cargill Salt, Minneapolis. Anglos will buy one to two round cans a year; Hispanics will buy three to four cans. States where the most table salt is sold are California, Louisiana and Florida -- home to a spicier cuisine in general, Bennett said.
Rukowski's business is based in the inner city and the fringe inner city, where ethnic foods count on salt for flavor. "We sell a lot of salt. I don't see the suburban end of the business, but our salt business stays very strong," he said.
How strong? "You would be surprised at the number of cases, 300 to 400 cases of iodized and plain table salt, each, per week, per brand," Rukowski said. He sells three brands: Red Cross, Diamond Crystal and White Rose. White Rose does carry some salt substitutes, but they are a very small part of the business.
Sea salt has become popular in gourmet cooking. White Rose considers it to be a specialty item. "We carry a couple of stockkeeping units, but they are an accommodation," Rukowski said. "By far, the rounds of [regular] salt sell the best."
In a severe winter, rock salt can be the fastest item through the register. But rock salt has not moved well lately due to mild winters in New York and New Jersey, Rukowski said. White Rose carries the 10-, 25- and 50-pound bags, as well as pellets, which don't do well.
"The inner city is a rock salt customer. The suburbs use calcium chloride, which is less corrosive than salt. You can pour out kosher salt on icy steps and it works too," he said.
Diamond Crystal, a regional brand in metropolitan New York, as far south as Philadelphia and in the six New England states, markets salt directly to stores. Morton salt, a national brand, also does programs at the store level, said Chris Halfmann, salt buyer for the 489-unit Spartan Stores, based in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Cargill, Minneapolis, which recently bought Diamond Crystal, also works directly with retailers.
"We write a program on a yearly basis, in partnership with retailers, to help move product through the stores," said Terence Viney, Eastern regional sales manager for Cargill.
As a category, table salt, which includes seasoned salt and salt substitutes, showed a slight growth of 0.2% in dollar sales for the 52-week period ended Oct. 11, 1998, but a 2.3% decline in unit sales, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago. Dollar sales totalled $220 million.
While health-conscious shoppers may avoid salt to some extent to ease symptoms of water retention, PMS and hypertension, Cargill's Bennett said consumer perceptions of salt haven't had a negative effect on sales.
"The pendulum is starting to swing away from sodium being a big concern. Of the Top 10 concerns, salt has dropped out of the Top 5," she said.
"My sales are up," said Kim Davis, a sales representative for Morton International, Chicago, the brand leader. "It just depends," she added. "There are more uses for salt than you might think." Cleaning coffee pots is one, she said.
Morton will run ads, but more often grants temporary price reductions that last a month. A sticker on the shelf alerts shoppers. Discounts vary by retailer. She mentioned the Harding's Friendly Markets chain, Plainwell, Mich., as one that sometimes offers table salt at three boxes for a dollar.
Successful salt promotions rely on giving retailers or wholesalers the opportunity to purchase on a deal, Viney said. "We have a menu of ways we can help them. We do anything we can to generate business and partner with them. We also help manage the salt category -- do sales analysis, see what the trends are so they can capitalize on it."
About half the country -- mostly the Upper Midwest and Southwest -- has so-called hard water, or water with high mineral content. To soften it, salt is used in a home-treatment unit usually kept in the basement.
Scott Anderson, store director of County Market, Worthington, Minn., owned by Gordy's Inc., Worthington, says salt used for softener is the biggest segment of his business. It comes in 40-pound bags costing about $2.50.
For melting ice, most customers in his locale do not like salt. They use calcium chloride, which is not as hard on their asphalt, or, in a storm, they might use the water-softener salt.
"Conditioner salt is a very competitive item," Anderson said. "A lot of people are looking for it. Dollarwise, it's the most profitable, although the percentage isn't that much. It's the volume that makes it more profitable."
Anderson sells salt substitutes, which are not a big item, but necessary to carry. He has noticed that his store sells a considerable amount of no-salt-added products, in categories like canned goods, crackers and snacks.
While softener salt is kept outside, in a fenced-in area, table salt is merchandised in the spice section, on the bottom or lower shelf. "It packs out easier on the bottom, because of the size of the containers," Anderson said. The small and much pricier spice bottles are up higher, at eye level, Anderson said. Rock salt is kept in the seasonal section, inside the store.