The cracker sandwich has graduated from novelty to full segment status in the cracker firmament.
Primarily used as a lunchbox staple or as an away-from-home tummy comforter, the category has expanded far beyond the traditional image of a vended, bright orange, peanut butter-filled cheese item, and is attracting a growing consumer following.
According to Nielsen North America, Northbrook, Ill., supermarket dollar sales of cracker sandwiches and snack packs have climbed 17.2% in the last five years, and represented $310.9 million in the 52 weeks ended June 11, 1994.
Research gathered by the Snack Food Association, Alexandria, Va., indicated that pound volume of cracker sandwiches in all distribution channels rose by 5.9% to 162.3 million pounds in 1993, while dollar sales, affected by price-cutting and mounting promotional activity, inched ahead 0.3% to $518.2 million.
While supermarkets currently move the biggest share of cracker sandwiches, other outlets are gaining, and some trade sources speculated that supermarkets could do more to exploit the potential of the emerging cracker sandwich segment.
SFA's research showed that pound volume distribution breaks down this way: Supermarkets hold 24.5%, warehouse clubs 18.0%, vending machines 15.0%, convenience stores 11.6%, mass merchandisers 11.3%, grocery stores 6.7% and drug stores 2.1%. The remainder, 10.8%, takes in business in schools, hospitals and other institutions.
SFA said clubs are among the fastest growing formats, and reflect sales to small retailers and vending operators.
Nielsen marketing research, meanwhile, showed that in the 12 weeks ended Sept. 3, 1994, mass merchandisers' pound sales soared 45.2% compared with the similar period in 1993; poundage in supermarkets was off two-tenths of a percent for the same period.
The industry has only recently taken notice of the category's ascension. "It's a lot bigger business than I thought," remarked Mark Guttsche, consumer affairs director at Nabisco, Parsippany, N.J., the largest U.S. cracker resource. Guttsche said he was astonished to find that his company generated in excess of $50 million in the category last year in supermarkets.
"We're evaluating the cracker sandwich line," said Jim Whittle, senior brand manager of crackers for Keebler Co., Elmhurst, Ill.
Nabisco, which introduced its Ritz Bits sandwich in 1989, went from two to six stockkeeping units of cracker sandwiches over the past year. Keebler, for its part, recently brought its Cracker Paks strength from two to five, with more sandwich products possibly being cooked up.
"Some snack food companies that are known for their chips and the like are starting to put muscle behind cracker sandwich lines," said Janet Schultz, spokeswoman for SFA. "You'll have a Frito-Lay mixing the sweet with the salty," she said, noting that the vendor is "offering graham cracker sandwich items based on the perception by consumers that grahams are better for them than perhaps some traditional cookie items might be."
The variety of offerings is greater, Schultz added. "Wheat and cheddar, which has a wholesome image, is a popular cracker sandwich. Several companies have a toast-peanut butter combination, which plays off the traditional peanut butter sandwich. One company, Lance, is offering a sourdough sandwich. Austin Quality Foods, Cary, N.C., has a cream cheese and chives that is a bit unusual."
Henry Pully, director of marketing at Lance, based in Charlotte, N.C., attributed the new attention being paid to sandwich crackers to stepped-up promotion by his company and others starting about 1990.
"We are rolling out Snack Right fat-free and reduced-fat products for supermarkets in mid-November and the first part of 1995," he said.
Pully added that growth of the sandwich segment may be helping to bring about changes in the snack sets in supermarkets.
"We're seeing a blending of the chip and salty snacks and cookie/cracker sections in chains we are in. Winn-Dixie, Publix, Harris-Teeter are continuing to take a look at that new format. Those two sections together probably have been able to gain additional space based on new product offerings," he said.