Retailers are adding more blends, dry seasoning mixes and hot ethnic herbs to their spice lineup, in response to consumer demand for flavor enhancers that make a quick dinner palatable.
"We've added seasoning mixes, some grilling products, pasta mixes and Mexican blends," said Mike Reuling, director of corporate brands for A&P, based in Montvale, N.J. A&P's primary supplier is McCormick & Co., Hunt Valley, Md. Where space is available, A&P uses tip cards for menu suggestions that come from the supplier, Reuling said. "With the rise in two-income families, today's consumer is looking for convenience, quick preparation and wholesome ingredients," he noted.
Joe Brown, director of grocery merchandising for King Kullen Grocery Co., Westbury, N.Y., said the spice category is growing slightly, primarily in the area of packaged seasoning blends. The chain has added new products to the category and devotes between 90 and 120 feet to spices, depending upon store size.
At Certified Grocers of California, Los Angeles, blends and dry seasoning mixes are also the fastest growing subcategory of spices, said Debbie Esparza, a grocery buyer for the wholesaler. Especially popular are lemon pepper, salad seasonings, barbecue marinades and pasta blends.
McCormick's Schilling Meal Idea Center, introduced in 1997, color-codes seasoning packets to correspond with meal themes like meat, fish and chicken, which consumers find helpful, Esparza said.
Tone Bros. has also redesigned packaging of its Durkee and French's lines of foil seasoning mixes and roasting bags, which are directed at the growing meal-solutions category, she went on to say.
The growing interest in hot flavors is bringing more items traditionally used in Asian and Mexican cuisine to the spice aisle.
While A&P doesn't carry many exotic spices, Reuling mentioned that adobo, a Mexican blend in a jar that was unheard of in the mainstream a few years ago, is now commonly stocked in his stores.
In general, shoppers' tastes dictate "the hotter, the better," Reuling said. He said the Cajun spices that McCormick produces for A&P are doing very well.
"We are getting a better appetite for the spicy ingredients, and also stronger flavor profiles in our foods," said Shusheela Uhl, a food consultant based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. This new preference is inspiring demand for Thai, Malaysian and Mexican flavors that go beyond Tex-Mex, she said.
Pam Giroux, director of merchandising for A.J.'s Fine Foods, Phoenix, said that consumers' increased awareness of exotic spices is also fueling demand.
"Consumer awareness of the spices out there has grown in the last six to eight years, and has incited manufacturers to produce [new products]," she said. "Spices are a fun way to diversify foods, and it's a way of adding flavor without adding fat. That is probably why the category will [continue to] grow."
Seth Pollard, specialty foods manager for Central Market, Austin, Texas, has also noticed that tastes are changing. "Our customers are gourmands. They read the New York Times food section to follow a recipe or pick something that the paper has written about," he said. "Any kind of barbecue rub for grilling is big here, as is mesquite-seasoned salt in a bottle."
Due to customer demand, Central Market stocks 10 kinds of sea salt, including one Japanese brand; miso, a condiment for meat or fish; and various gingers used to prepare sushi.
"Pickled ginger is very hot, and sells like mad," said Valerie Milburn of Central Market. Dry rubs for barbecuing continue to be the biggest sellers, according to Milburn, whose job title is "lead foodie." She assists shoppers at store level.
Asian products are very much in demand, said Pollard, and the store responded by adding a 4-foot metro rack of Asian products, which include some spices.
Some stores take customer requests and then find a source to provide the items.
"Lemon grass was probably at one point a customer request," said Giroux of A.J.'s. The store carries from 25 to 40 spice lines, she said, and finds demand growing for ethnic spices, particularly those associated with Thai, Caribbean and Indian cuisine.
"We have a diverse clientele, and the Asian category appeals to all," she said.
Retailers differ in where they merchandise spices and how much space they devote to the category. Some supermarkets still display spices in one location, while others use cross merchandising, double merchandising and cross promotion.
Bozzuto's, Cheshire, Conn., usually merchandises spices in the baking aisle, where they are traditionally stocked, as well as in secondary locations. The company carries the McCormick line, which consists of price items, private label, basic and gourmet, said Steve Heggelke, Bozzuto's director of grocery merchandising.
"Where demographics warrant, we also stock natural and ethnic varieties from other manufacturers," he added.
Gravy, sauce mixes, and bag and season mixes are merchandised alongside the canned vegetable and instant potato mixes, Heggelke said. Most stores also have a secondary location of gravy and bag and season mixes in the meat department, he noted.
"We are currently testing 'meal-solution' racks in our meat departments. These racks include recipes and items that typically involve 'one-step' preparation. Our goal is to educate the consumer that meal preparation can be simple and inexpensive and still create the home-cooked atmosphere," Heggelke said.
"Our merchandising typically consists of off-shelf display units, especially shippers, that are placed in high-traffic locations, paying special attention to seasonal trends.
"Shelf extenders, tie-in displays and advertised specials also play an important role in increasing sales. We attempt to merchandise spices 52 weeks a year. It is also important that these displays are placed, wherever possible, with the corresponding usage item," Heggelke continued.
Most stores supplied by Certified Grocers have two different spice sections: conventional bottled spices (McCormick, Durkee, Spice Hunter) and a specialty section that could be gourmet, Asian or Hispanic, Esparza said. Stores generally carry two lines of conventional spices and 15 gourmet, four natural, eight Hispanic and four Asian stockkeeping units.
Certified's members offer larger sizes of popular items, such as minced onions, parsley flakes, cinnamon, lemon pepper, black pepper and garlic powder, to compete with mass and club stores. "We are able to reach 99 cents at retail during certain deal windows on key items," Esparza said.
In many stores supplied by Certified, spices are double merchandised, with some in the Hispanic section, explained Esparza. The Hispanic sections are not carrying new items, she noted, but remain constant in their cellophane bag and bulk business.
At A&P, the spice section can be 12 to 20 linear feet, depending on the size of the store, with the average being 80 to 100 running feet, Reuling said. A&P carries 32 SKUs of Master Choice, the private-label brand that McCormick produces for the chain, and about 350 to 400 SKUs of the McCormick brand in any store, he said.
Some of the newer and larger stores in the A&P chains also stock spices in their natural-food aisles, as well as where they are traditionally found, in the baking aisles. A&P, like Certified, also stocks large sizes.
"We are competitive. We carry a very large variety, and we even have club packs. We feel we have all the bases covered, unlike some of the mass channels that carry only a few items," Reuling noted.
"Spices are a very important part of our business, so we are doing everything we can to keep it growing," he said.
A.J.'s devotes 16 to 20 feet to spices in-line. In addition, the chain cross merchandises spices in the meat and seafood departments, and on freestanding displays in other parts of the store. Sometimes A.J.'s puts a new line of spices at the deli counter, or places some dried chiles and whole peppercorns in the produce department, Giroux said.
King Kullen stores usually carry two or three brands, Brown told SN.
"Spices can be a high impulse item, sometimes overlooked or forgotten by shoppers," he noted. Thus, seasonal displays and advertising are key. Cross merchandising with shipper units and shelf extenders is quite effective, he said, probably because they jog the shopper's memory about what is needed at home.
With the organic spice category growing fast, Frontier Natural Products Co-Op, Norway, Iowa, has launched a spice display for retail grocery and natural-food stores to promote its line of premium certified organic spices.
The line was recently tested in some Kroger's stores, said Cathy Berg, category marketing manager for Frontier Packaged Spices. Kroger was pleased with the test results, she added, and the program is being extended to additional stores.
The Spice Hunter also introduced its new line of 33 certified organic spices and five blends at the Fancy Foods Show, held in New York in June.
According to Cindy Rudman, manager of marketing research at McCormick, the spice category is not well promoted.
"It's more of a price game," she said. "Spice pricing is way out of whack and, as a company, we're bringing our prices way down."
Nonetheless, retailers are using innovative strategies to promote seasonings. For example, in addition to in-store displays, A.J.'s Fine Foods promotes its spice assortment through cooking classes, including those televised on Phoenix's Channel 15 every Sunday morning.
A.J.'s sponsors the show, and the chef uses only products from A.J.'s stores, such as Eurospice, a line of versatile bag spices the chefs often use for entrees, Giroux said.
In some cases, spice merchandising takes an interactive turn. For example, Battistelli's, an independent store in Lively, Ontario, provides information about spices at its Web site.
At Central Market, the interaction is face-to-face, as "foodies" educate employees and customers alike about how to use spices. The foodies also provide recipe ideas.
The Austin store has three foodies on the floor, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week, to answer questions and show customers where products are located. Milburn, the lead foodie, says the program was created in response to comments from customers "who were dazed and confused in front of more than 100 varieties of mustard."