Exposure to tastes from far-off lands is inspiring home chefs and driving sales of fortified spices
Exotic spice blends are dazzling consumers' taste buds and boosting sales in a category that's become anything but bland.
Practical health and wellness benefits are also converging to give these flavors an even more pungent punch.
Retailers told SN that consumers are sprinkling on flavors to reap a range of desirable consequences associated with organic spices, those with anti-inflammatory properties, spices that aid in digestion and those that help control weight.
“Spices offer a good way to flavor food without adding any calories,” related Suman Lawrence, marketing and education specialist for the living well department at United Supermarkets. “Everyone uses them, even if it's just salt and pepper. But we like to merchandise a good variety to keep the foodies coming back.”
With 18 feet of in-line space, United's six upscale Market Street stores aim to satiate shoppers' culinary sense of adventure. The stores segregate spices into three groups: those used everyday; specialty, natural and organic; and Hispanic.
“People are becoming more adventurous in trying different flavors, because of the Food Network, chefs like Rachel Ray and Emeril Lagasse, recipe distribution in-store and in magazines,” said Lawrence.
Shoppers are also searching for recipes with specific spices in mind. During the first two weeks in January, recipes containing the following 10 spices were most frequently sought by home chefs perusing Allrecipes.com's recipe database: curry powder, red pepper, mustard powder, vanilla, cumin, saffron, chili powder, paprika and the Indian spice garam masala.
The Market Street stores, too, are experiencing a boost in sales of ethnic flavors like wasabi, garam masala and five-spice powder, which combines the five basic flavors of Chinese cooking, including sweet, sour, bitter, savory and salt, according to Lawrence.
Nutritional influences are also manifesting a presence within Market Street's baking aisles.
The anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric, ginger, garlic and cinnamon are heating up sales of these spices, she said.
“There is also a big trend with sea salts,” Lawrence noted. “Because its strong flavor profile allows you to use less of it, users [end up ingesting] less sodium.”
Market Street stores are also experiencing a “major boom” in natural and organic spices. And they're not alone.
Sales in the organic spice/seasoning/extract category grew a whopping 84.5% to $26.7 million in the supermarket channel during the 52 weeks ending Dec. 29, according to the Nielsen Co. Sales of conventional spices/seasonings/extracts, meanwhile, rose 1.7% to a much higher base of $1.9 billion.
Sales of USDA Certified Organic spices are gaining momentum at Straub's, a four-store specialty grocer that merchandises flavors ranging from those used every day and sold for around $4.99 to high-end specialties such as $24 truffle salt.
“We introduced organic spices about four years ago, and last year their sales doubled from the previous year,” said the St. Louis-based retailer's grocery buyer, Roger McElroy. “We initially sold them at a higher price point, but we brought it down.”
Priced comparably with conventional spices sold at Straub's, the retailer's strategy is designed to influence organic trial in higher-margin categories throughout the store. “I wanted to remove the barriers to organic purchases,” said McElroy. “This adds an extra value.”
Local restaurants' signature spices, such as the blend used on steaks at nearby Citizen Kane's Steak House, Oriental flavors like ginger, and South African blends bearing the Cape Herb label and featuring built-in grinders, are also faring well at Straub's.
“People like the idea of a fresh grind, because they get the aroma and the sense of a spice's potency before using it on their food,” said McElroy. Sea salts are also garnering a good bit of attention there.
“Whether its a red or black sea salt used for presentation purposes, consumers are catching on because they've seen these in restaurants and on the Food Network,” he said.
Straub's health-conscious shoppers are also reaching for spices like turmeric and cayenne pepper for their functional benefits. Turmeric is thought by some to help aid those suffering from Alzheimer's disease, cancer and liver disorders. Cayenne pepper is said to aid digestion.
“Cayenne pepper speeds the metabolism, and it's thought to have a cancer-reducing effect,” said McElroy. “Some customers put a teaspoon of it in a glass of water and drink it.”
McCormick & Co. is also appealing to shoppers' sense of well-being with new low-sodium versions of everyday spices. Exotic new flavors like Chai Spice Blend, Far East Sesame Ginger Blend, Smoked Paprika and Cocoa Chili Blend are also among its new additions.
“Spices are enjoying growth because of the overall trend of consumers creating more tastes in their foods,” said Ted Taft, managing director, Meridian Consulting Group, Westport, Conn. “People eat a lot of chicken, so much so that there is a term called ‘chicken fatigue.’ Spices offer a way of giving protein of any kind more appeal.”
ShopRite stores, which cater to more mainstream consumers, is seeing a spike in sales of steak and poultry blends, reported Jeannette Castaneda, spokeswoman for Wakefern Food Corp., a cooperative whose 44 members operate 200 ShopRite stores. Initial trial is often spurred in its meat departments, where these flavors are merchandised alongside the proteins they complement.
The versatility and health benefits of sea salts are also driving everyday purchases there, noted Castaneda.
ShopRite stores are spurring category sales by reminding shoppers to replenish their spice racks.
“Our Consumer Affairs division has produced a brochure that focuses on herbs and spices,” said Castaneda. “It mentions that they start to lose their color and fragrance after three months, and that they should be consumed during their first year of purchase.”
Packaging innovations are facilitating freshness.
“As the years progress, packaging is becoming smaller so people can buy and try different flavors,” Lawrence said.
Although Market Street stores don't currently have space for them, Lawrence is thinking about sourcing packets of spices that come premeasured in popular baking quantities, such as 1 teaspoon.
Innovations that facilitate convenience are also appealing to shoppers at Straub's. Consumers there commonly reach for Flavor Magic sheets, said McElroy, because they allow for a fast way to distribute spices evenly over meat.
“Spices are bonded to a thin-film sheet, and then to marinate a protein, you simply place it on top,” he said.
Such products aid in recipe preparation during the spice category's busiest holiday periods.
Seasonal spices sell especially well during these times, noted Lawrence.
“Pumpkin spice and poultry seasoning are big sellers,” she said. “A lot of consumers also like to stick with traditional spices like basil, oregano, thyme and vanilla extract.”
Market Street's everyday spice sales also get an additional boost when five-ingredient recipes, each of which takes less than 30 minutes to complete, are distributed from its in-store cooking kitchen by members of its sales and sampling team.