Smaller portions of everything, including dessert, are a big deal for the food industry right now.
The trend is playing out in the grocery aisle where sales of small, 100-calorie packs of all kinds of sweet and salty snacks are exceeding expectations. Meanwhile, in-store bakeries are packaging wedges of cake and pie for one or for two, and also adding miniature cakes to their lineup, to attract new customers.
“We're trying to reach more markets, and we believe we are,” said Tammy Kampsula, bakery director at Lubbock, Texas-based United Supermarkets, which operates stores under Market Street and Super Mercado banners as well as the United banner. “Our sales of mini-cakes and individually wrapped items don't cut into other sales.”
The chain of more than 50 stores just introduced 5-inch cakes in four varieties for $4.99. That launch, at the retailer's new upscale Market Street store, came in response to the retailer's long-time success with four-count packs of cake slices, which retail for $3.99.
“That's been a great item for us for years,” Kampsula said.
The company, too, has just introduced a line of individually wrapped items from the in-store bakery. At the new store, the single-serve products are wrapped in fold-over, see-through bags and displayed in baskets in the store's coffee shop and at checkout as well as on a tiered merchandiser in the bakery. They include cake and pie slices as well as muffins, cookies, bagels, foccacia squares and the chain's new signature Texas brownies.
All are selling well with the exception of muffins, Kampsula said. “That was a little disappointing, but I think it's because we offer muffins individually from a bulk display in bakery,” she said.
Since all the other individually packed items are performing up to and above projections, they will be rolled out to other stores, just like the mini-cakes, Kampsula said.
She and bakery directors at other chains — including Scolari's, Sparks, Nev.; Marketplace Food & Drug, Minot, N.D., and Food Lion's upscale Bloom division, Salisbury, N.C. — noted individual servings or servings for two, and mini-cakes, are attracting a different customer, one who probably would not buy a whole cake or pie, no matter how enticing.
Empty-nesters, singles living alone, maybe with limited kitchen space, people who feel they overindulged during the holidays but don't want to give up sweets entirely, even those looking to eat something on the run or to take back to the office — those people don't want a big cake or pie staring at them from the refrigerator or kitchen counter.
“There is no more un-discussed regret in America than the amount of food we all throw away each week because it goes rotten or stale in our refrigerators and cupboards,” James Richardson, a researcher affiliated with The Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash., wrote in a report last April.
Richardson was making a case for grocery aisle single-servings in multipacks, but certainly the same is true for uneaten portions of freshly baked cakes and pies.
Consumers are apt to regard a pack of two slices of cake or a small cake that'll serve two or three people as an everyday dessert, something they can justify buying with some frequency.
“It makes sense to me. This is what people are looking for,” said Mona Doyle, president of Consumer Network, a Philadelphia-based consumer research group. “The emerging market is for smaller portions. It extends the products' application.”
Retailers who have not previously offered such items are adding them to their mix.
Others, having seen demand grow for single or double portions of existing products, are increasing the variety of single-serve products.
Bloom introduced a 5-inch cake late last year as a complement to its existing line of cakes, Karen Peterson, media relations manager of the 35-unit banner, told SN.
“Miniature versions of our best-selling desserts have proved to be popular, too, as well as our lemon bars and pecan squares wrapped individually or two to a package,” she added. “It's another way to give our customers more choices.”
Emphasizing that mini-cakes make sense for every day, United Supermarkets' table display of mini-cakes at its new store features a colorful sign with these words, “Desserts for Me.” An illustration on the sign shows one person, alone, eating a slice of cake.
At Marketplace Food & Drug, cake department manager and prize-winning cake decorator Nyla Stromberg pepped up her 5-inch cake sales last year with icings in extreme colors. Chartreuse and fire engine red attracted the attention of customers. Sales of the mini-cakes jumped significantly even in the dark days of winter, and were going strong when Stromberg talked to SN earlier this month. The store's also seeing strong demand for two slices of cake, wrapped up in a package.
“We put two 1½ by 3-inch slices in clam shells and retail them at $2.69 or $2.99, depending on the cake variety,” she said. “They're great for lunch boxes or just dessert for two.”
Called “Cake for Two,” that program has been an ongoing success, she said.
“Those and single servings of cheesecake do very well, especially this time of year. People want a little sweet, but not a big cake. They're exercising a little portion control after the holidays.”
Stromberg pointed out that she offers a lot of flavors in the Cake for Two program, including chocolate-raspberry, lemon, German chocolate and carrot.
“We do a half sheet, freeze it and then slice it while it's frozen. That way, it makes a clean cut, faster and easier.”
Stromberg even made a miniature wedding cake for a customer right on the spot one day. “They asked if we had such a thing, and I said we didn't but I could make them one,” she said. Stromberg placed a 5-inch, round layer on top of an 8-inch layer, iced it all in white, and then trailed white, fondant roses over it.
At Scolari's, single and double servings of pie and cake were initially offered as a way to cut down on shrink.
“We make our own pies and some cakes, and they have a very limited shelf life,” said Robert Quintanilla, bakery/deli director at the 18-unit chain. “We take them off the shelf the day before the sell date and cut them up, packaging them in single and double servings. It cuts down on shrink and gives the customer a bargain. We sell pie wedges for 79 cents each.”
Since the in-store bakery is adjacent to deli and food service, the single-serve pie and cake portions are primarily displayed in deli/food service, suggested as a dessert with lunch or dinner.
“Single-serve is for a different customer, and we have been selling more recently. That's incremental sales,” Quintanilla added. “Some of the individual desserts sales have surprised me. Like individual parfaits.”
Scolari's also spotlights a high-quality, 6-inch, double-layer cake in store bakeries.
“Those are top-quality thaw-and-sell [products] in some nice varieties,” he said. “They're doing well, moving better now than they were a year ago.”
Because the quality is gourmet, the retail on those at $10.99 doesn't differ much from Scolari's 8-inch, triple-layer cakes at $11.99. Nonetheless, the smaller cakes hold their own, Quintanilla said.
Some retailers noted they had tried single-serve and double-serve packaging and found that the packs with two slices of pie or cake easily outsell the singles.
Consumer researchers and other industry observers, however, told SN they don't see as much of this type of merchandising as they would expect. Retailers could generate higher sales if they were more aggressive in promoting the products, sources said.
The single serves and miniature items represent competition for the single-serve dessert items sold in the supermarket's commercial bakery aisle and at convenience stores, one industry source said.
“At the ISB, these options would compete with snack cakes like Little Debbie, in which case they can be positioned as high-quality, highly customized, indulgent offerings,” said David Morris, analyst and editor at research group Mintel International's Chicago office.
Another researcher with her finger on the collective consumer pulse said much the same thing.
“I'd wager a lot of that [sales of individual servings or mini-cakes] is incremental sales. So retailers should make some noise about what they're doing,” said Doyle at Consumer Network. “People who aren't buying a whole cake or pie at all right now will buy these. I know people want individual items, but mostly they're getting them at convenience stores. They're not thinking of supermarkets for them.”
Size matters to consumers who shop in supermarket bakeries.
In an exclusive study in 2006, Mintel International found that convenience is a top reason consumers shop in-store bakeries and that portion size influences 15% of respondents who purchase products from ISBs. A small but growing number of consumers appreciate the option and flexibility — and convenience — of being able to buy ISB items by the serving, the study concluded.
“Providing single-serve cakes and pies makes more sense in an age of generally lower average household sizes and especially among younger consumers, many of whom are delaying marriage and family longer than in the past,” David Morris, research analyst at Mintel, told SN.
Another consumer observer, underscoring convenience, said single-serve items and mini-cakes are long overdue in the ISB.
“People have been asking for smaller sizes of bread and cake for a long time,” said Mona Doyle, president, Consumer Network, a Philadelphia-based consumer research group.