One of Albertsons' "Quick Fixin' Ideas" recommends serving any variety of Healthy Request Soup with a deli hoagie. Cooking time: 5 minutes.
The strategy behind Albertsons' soup suggestion, featured on the "Quick Fixin"' section of its Web site, is to position soup as a convenient meal solution. Indeed, the category performs best in the colder months. But its appeal is being extended year-round as consumers increasingly look at soup as a meal in itself.
"Soup is becoming a substitution for the center of plate," said Julie Griffin, culinary director, Lunds and Byerly's, banners of Lund Food Holdings, Minneapolis. "People are eating it with a salad or sandwich, and even as a complete dinner."
That's not to say the category doesn't have competition. The convenience and improved quality of fresh soup have hordes of consumers heading for supermarket deli departments. Deli counters are tempting consumers not only with piping-hot soups in the winter, but also cold soups in the warmer months. Many are even pairing fresh soup offerings with deli salads and sandwiches and bakery bread.
Despite this, interest in ready-to-serve wet soups remains strong. Supermarket dollar sales for this category were $1.7 billion for the 52 weeks ended Dec. 1, 2002, a 5.3% increase from the same period in 2001, according to Information Resources Inc., Chicago. The top 10 brands are Campbell's Chunky, Progresso, Campbell's Select, Swanson, private label, Campbell's, Healthy Choice, Wolfgang Puck's, College Inn and Swanson Natural Goodness, respectively.
Manufacturers are countering the fresh soup trend by making their products more convenient than ever. The Campbell Soup Co., for instance, offers "easy-open pop tops" and has introduced Soup at Hand, a soup that caters to on-the-go consumers. Available nationally since September 2002, Soup at Hand features a microwavable sipping container designed to fit into one hand. Individually priced at $1.49, the line features four varieties: Classic Tomato, Creamy Chicken, Cream of Broccoli, and Blended Vegetable Medley.
The soup aisle is also being warmed up by heartier varieties. Packaging throughout the section boasts statements like "now, smooth and creamier," "richer," "thicker" and "bursting with flavor."
Gourmet and specialty selections have added more excitement to the category as well. Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck markets such varieties as Thick Country Vegetable, Country Tomato with Basil and Old World Minestrone. And Coco Pazzo, a restaurant on Manhattan's Upper East Side, offers a line of Tuscan soups. Even mainstream manufacturers are touting the specialty ingredients in their products. For instance, Progresso's "Distinctive Recipes" line includes French onion soup made with Vidalia onions.
At Harp's Food Stores, a 45-store chain in Springdale, Ark., sales of ready-to-serve soup have increased over the last year, according to Mike Greenhaw, head grocery buyer. Campbell's is the category leader at Harp's, which merchandises soup anywhere from 4 to 16 feet, depending on the store.
Harp's beefs up promotional efforts in the fall and winter, though it promotes the category year-round with an everyday-low pricing strategy.
"If the shelf price is correct, soup will sell," Greenhaw said.
At Harp's, the soup category is price-sensitive. Greenhaw stressed that while consumers buy it mostly for convenience, they are willing to pay only so much for it. Soup at Hand hasn't taken the category by storm. Greenhaw said because of its higher price point.
"Here in rural America, consumers are not going to pay high prices for soup," he said. Greenhaw said consumers are increasingly turning to soup as a meal solution, though the chain promotes the category strictly as soup.
Lunds/Byerly's draws attention to the category by positioning select soups at the front end as part of a new cross-merchandising effort. Select soups, for instance, were merchandised recently with soup bowls, said Griffin.
"Our goal is to give our customers a solution-driven idea," Griffin told SN.
Fresh soup -- both hot and cold -- is sold in Lunds/Byerly's deli department. But it's not cannibalizing ready-to-serve sales. Rather, having both fresh and shelf-stable varieties lets the chain offer more options to its consumers.
"Consumers know that they can come into our stores and get something that's already prepared or something that needs little preparation," she said.
Griffin said consumers sometimes prefer to prepare and serve soup at home, which has helped the shelf-stable category. Their biggest concern is the quality of the selections they choose. Consumers are more discerning when it comes to taste, and they are moving toward soup that is full of flavor.
"The flavor isn't there because it's loaded with salt and MSG, but because it's packed with good herbs, spices and ingredients," she said. She said Wolfgang Puck's soups sell well at the chain.
At Sterk's Super Foods, Hammond, Ind., shoppers prefer ready-to-serve varieties packed with meat and vegetables, rather than condensed, said Kevin Copper, vice president, marketing.
"There's been a move away from condensed to homemade-style soups," said Copper. Sales from IRI confirm this. Condensed soup generated $1.3 billion in sales in supermarkets for the 52 weeks ended Dec. 1, 2002, a 4.1% drop, according to IRI. Campbell's is taking steps, however, to improve sales by overhauling its condensed soups (see story below).
"People want the heartier, richer, homemade-style soup," Copper said.
Only a few of Sterk's nine stores offer fresh soup in the deli department, so there's not heavy competition from the perimeter of the store, Copper noted.
Sterk's promotes the category year-round, though efforts increase in the colder months due to more manufacturer deals, said Copper.
"Because of the deals, we'll have more in-store promotions in the winter," he said. "Last year, the winter was so mild, which hurt sales. Now, we're having a traditional Midwestern winter," he noted.
To spur impulse sales in the colder months, Sterk's cross merchandises soup with items like crackers.