Forget the Thousand Island! Today many consumers are saying "Please pass the Raspberry/Pecan Vinaigrette" when choosing a bottled salad dressing.
Retailers have been resetting their salad-dressing aisles to capitalize on the trend to more upscale items. Retailers report an increasing number of consumers are buying the gourmet dressings to use as marinades and recipe ingredients.
"A lot of dressings are more like marinades. People use them for marinating meats, fajitas and chicken breast," said Scott Silverman, vice president for specialty foods at Rice Food Markets, Houston.
Pat Redmond, grocery buyer at Rosauers Supermarkets, Spokane, Wash., said gourmet dressings have brought profitability back to the salad-dressing aisle.
"A few years ago most of the items in our salad-dressing department were low gross margin, no gross margin or losers. We thought we would create bigger, larger sections and put some profitability in it by getting into these gourmet-type dressings.
This gave our customers an alternative to the Kraft, Wish-Bone and other mainstream brands. We also make money off these items. We make some pretty decent gross margins, and they have sold very well," Redmond said. He has also had success with several small organic brands that are also stocked in Rosauers' two natural-food stores, which operate under the Huckleberry's banner.
While the gourmet salad dressings are still dominated by small, regional brands that often began as offshoots of local restaurants, in recent years just about every major manufacturer has introduced a gourmet-style dressing. Caesar, raspberry vinaigrette and honey dijon have now entered into the mainstream.
For example, CPC International, the Englewood Cliffs, N.J.-based manufacturer of the Hellmann's and Best Foods brands, is rolling out a fat-free raspberry vinaigrette and oil and vinegar-based Caesar. And other leading brands, including Kraft and its sister Seven Seas brand, Lipton's Wish-Bone, Clorox's Hidden Valley, Marzetti/Pfeiffer/Girard's and Ken's Steak House, have also rolled out more daring flavors in recent years.
According to Information Resources Inc., Chicago, for the 52 weeks ended Oct. 12, 1997, bottled salad dressings had supermarket sales of $1.51 billion, a 2.9% increase over the previous year. Unit sales increased 2.4% to more than 585 million bottles.
"We carry as many stockkeeping units in gourmet dressings as we do in regular dressings," said Silverman, who added he stocks at least 15 different Caesar salad dressings, several of which are in his Top 25 salad-dressings list.
Mark Polsky, senior vice president at Magruder, Rockville, Md., said his chain stocks all the latest gourmet flavors.
"While the gourmet flavors are not going to replace the top sellers, there is a segment of the market that is interested in that item. That is who we're catering to by having them," he said.
Polsky said fitting the proliferation of flavors on the shelves has not really been a problem, just more or less one of supply and demand.
Silverman finds consumers will often like one flavor in one brand, and prefer a different flavor in another.
"There is not as much loyalty to brand as there is to flavor. With Ken's Dressing I have five that are in the Top 25 and then I have several that are way down at the bottom of the list."
Because the gourmet dressings have high price tags they do not appeal to everyone and sometimes turns become a problem, Silverman said. "Any time you get above $3.99 a bottle, turns begin to slow down."
Silverman said he tries to sample and demo the gourmet dressings so his shoppers can see how they compare with the big national brands. Indeed, his overall best-selling dressing is a local brand called Monica's Magic.
"It beats out all the gourmets, as well as all the warehouse-type Seven Seas and Wish-Bone products. It is made by a local lady. One reason it does so well is that she does do a great deal of demoing," Silverman said, adding the small gourmet companies cannot compete with a Kraft or Seven Seas on a price level.
"The Wish-Bone, Kraft and Seven Seas have money to coupon to get trial. They have money to advertise to get trial. They don't do as much demoing anymore, but when they come out with a new flavor they will advertise it, whereas for a lot of the gourmet companies, the logistics to get on the shelf are really tough.
"You are going to pay more for a better dressing. There is a big difference between the mainstream brands and gourmet, especially when it comes to the amount of preservatives," he said.
John Corcoran, category manager at Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., said gourmet dressings offer high margins of 30%.
Cheryl Robertson, regional communications manager at Supervalu's Pittsburgh division, New Stanton, Pa., also finds sales to be somewhat seasonal.
"There tend to be greater offerings during the summer/garden periods. If promoted during the winter, the salad dressings will sell, but not as well," she said.
"There are fewer facings and a quicker turnover of slow items that are not a niche brand. You also tend not to have three 'blue cheese low-fat dressing' varieties because of item duplication."
Much of the growth in the salad-dressing category is coming from fat-free items, according to retailers.
"Low-fat dressings have been heavily promoted and offered to the consumer, and have taken sales from traditional dressings," said Cheryl Robertson, regional communications manager for Supervalu's Pittsburgh Division, New Stanton, Pa.
"The fat-frees have taken over," said Mark Polsky, senior vice president at Magruder, Rockville, Md. "In our stores the fat-frees and the regulars comprise at least 80% of the salad-dressing category sales."
One of the leading gourmet dressings has just gone fat-free. Cardini's, a division of T. Marzetti Co., Columbus, Ohio, is rolling out Cardini's Fat-Free Caesar Dressing.