Retailers operating practically anywhere in the United States will probably tell you that low retail prices prevent them from making much profit from most baby food.
Then there's Washington state. Bringing up baby in the state of Washington costs 17 cents a jar, considerably less than anywhere else in the country, thanks to retail price wars that have dragged baby food prices down to about half the national average.
"In our particular market area, as well as most of western Washington, Gerber products are what we call a 'salient-priced' category," said Paul Duckworth, grocery buyer for Thrifty Food Stores, Burlington, Wash.
"It's one of those items the retail grocery industry has identified it wants to be just as down and dirty as it can be, because the type of person that's going to be buying those baby foods is also the kind of shopper you certainly want in your store week-in, week-out."
An informal survey of retailers and suppliers revealed that 17 cents is apparently the lowest price for jarred baby food around. A local industry observer said low, low baby food prices have been the norm in the western part of the state for at least five years, and the trend has been creeping eastward.
"The story that I get is that this was the philosophy of at least one of the major chains in Seattle," he said. "Everyone else followed to be competitive."
Retailers contacted by SN said Gerber is the only line carried in most supermarkets in the state. "I'd say Gerber has about 99% of the business here," the industry source said. He said the most drastic reductions are on the most basic products.
The low-price fever has been spreading across the state. Pat Redmond, grocery buyer for Rosauers Supermarkets, Spokane, said it began in his area several months ago.
"It's competition. There's no question about that," he said. "We're not necessarily leading the way, but we have to meet that competition.
"We have a new player, Fred Meyer, in the market, and that's been their position. They came into this market with two new stores. We're very definitely an EDLP market and that was one of the items they chose to be EDLP-very, with the LP accentuated," Redmond said.
As a consequence, retailers in this corner of the Pacific Northwest seem resigned to the fact baby food will not be bringing them profits anytime soon.
"It's kind of one of those salient items in all stores," said Sal Logrande, corporate buyer for Brown & Cole/Washington Food, Ferndale, Wash. "Basically, you either make nothing or lose money on it. It's like mayonnaise and tuna; pretty much staple items that people buy."
Duckworth said prices throughout the Seattle and Tacoma areas range from 17 cents to 20 cents. Consumers have grown accustomed to the low prices and thus don't often see them advertised.
Prices are low in neighboring states as well, but they have not reached the depths they have in Washington.