In bakery departments, the growing popularity of single-serve sweets and snacks is proof that big things do come in small packages
Whether it's cupcakes or cookies, mini-tarts or gourmet brownies, small desserts have become a big draw in many supermarket bakery departments. Retailers and analysts say there's a number of reasons for the trend. These small treats are convenient, and for shoppers planning to entertain at home, a selection of small desserts can offer their guests more variety than a single cake or pie. And, for shoppers who like to eat healthy and watch their weight, individual-size snacks allow them to indulge, without overindulging.
“It does appear that as consumers gravitate to healthier food choices, they still take a ‘time out’ and enjoy an indulgence such as a single-serve cake, a brownie or an over-the-top delectable cupcake,” said John Rose, bakery category manager for Brookshire Grocery Co., Tyler, Texas.
“We introduced a single-serve cake line about 18 months ago and have been very pleased with the response. This seems to fit with some of the literature which has been circulating regarding healthier lifestyles and the importance of ‘balance’ in the food choices people make. Hence, to use the English colloquial proverb, ‘have one's cake and eat it too,’ people are apparently including an occasional treat as part of their diet.”
Growth figures for individual desserts indicate that the trend is national.
“Small indulgences have become big sales drivers for many in-store bakeries as shoppers look to cut back on calories without sacrificing flavor,” said Kathryn Kingsbury, education information specialist at the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association.
“Cupcakes, cookies, brownies and single-serve gourmet delicacies have benefited as a result.”
The sales trends for individual desserts, specialty cookies and cupcakes are up in general, according to the IDDBA's “What's in Store 2009” report. The report says that individual cupcake sales were up 8.7%, snack cakes up 6.9% and dessert cake up 6% in the 52 weeks ending May 24, 2008.
Brookshire's makes sure to incorporate single-serve gourmet baked goods in all its stores.
“We found it advantageous to include these in our bakery schematics for nearly all of our stores,” said Rose. “Since the inception of this effort, our customers have rewarded us with consistent, steady growth in this category.”
At Bashas' stores, unit sales for single-serve gourmet baked sweets and snacks have been up significantly, according to Paul Chapman, director of bakery for the Chandler, Ariz.-based retailer.
“Especially in light of the current economic landscape, [consumers] can still indulge and get a value,” said Chapman, adding that he feels the holiday season is a popular time for the category.
While indulgent single-serve bakery sweets and snacks are appealing in and of themselves, retailer attention to detail has the potential to further increase the category's draw and popularity by grabbing the impulsive shopper's attention.
“What we found, going around with consumers to various retailers that have these higher-quality indulgent single-serve, or much smaller tartlet type things for the consumers, is that they're just self-promoting,” said Melissa Abbott, senior trendspotter and analyst at Bellevue, Wash.-based The Hartman Group.
“[Single-serve treats] are screaming, ‘I'm lovely, eat me.’ And we've seen quite a lot of that with consumers [who] are shopping around the store — they almost never have the intention of going in and saying they're going to get themselves a treat.”
Abbott explained that this is why eye-catching displays are important — and why they are usually placed in the middle of the bakery department, in high-traffic areas, where they can tempt the maximum number of shoppers.
“The consumer can't resist that,” she said. “And they're feeling justified in the small treat — made of real ingredients — that's an authentic treat, rather than [for example] a 100-calorie pack, or a bag of low-calorie, sugar-free or fat-free cookies. Because they know from previous experience that what happens with that bag of cookies is that they overindulge,” Abbott said.
Abbott noted that even with the inherent eye appeal and popularity of smaller treats, it's important to make sure the packaging also helps send a message of indulgence and quality to the shopper.
“If it's just in one of those clear clamshell plastic containers, it doesn't really do it so much for the consumer; if it's a delightful little treat like a mini cheesecake with a raspberry swirl or something, then it has to be placed in something very cute and precious, kind of a little container,” Abbott explained.
“I've seen little cupcakes placed in a special cupcake-to-go container, so rather than that very standard stock plastic clamshell, moving away from that will get consumers to feel that they're taking a moment out for themselves — ‘This is all about me, this is for me.’”
Brookshire's packages some of its singe-serve cakes in a plastic clamshell container with a fork embedded in the lid.
“The fork has an obvious functional purpose; however, it also delivers a subliminal message that seems to say, ‘carryout,’ or ‘grab-and-go,’” Rose said.
At this year's Show & Sell Center at IDDBA's Dairy-Deli-Bake 2008 in New Orleans, many ideas for packaging and merchandising small indulgences were featured.
“Attendees were wild about the cupcake corsages — single cupcakes lavishly decorated with an enormous and true-to-life gum-paste flower,” Kingsbury said.
“The corsages were packaged in clear plastic corsage boxes for maximum visual impact.”
By contrast, fresh-baked cookies received the bulk treatment, rather than individual attention, but were just as much of a hit.
“One of our most popular merchandising ideas was merchandising cookies is clear plastic ‘paint buckets’ filled with cookies of different sizes,” Kingsbury said.
“Shoppers love these, because they can see what's inside — no surprises. The convenient paint-bucket handle made it a great grab-and-go item and party gift. We know it was a great idea, because people kept walking off with the buckets!”
While the holiday season is a good time to promote themed desserts, consumers want variety throughout the year, industry observers agreed.
“We know [our customers] want to indulge, and having a good variety of everyday and seasonal offerings is critical,” Chapman said.
Kingsbury agreed, pointing out that convenience can also be a factor with single-serve portions, especially when shoppers are planning a holiday event.
“The holidays are a great time to promote small indulgences, and not just the winter holidays, but celebrations throughout the year,” Kingsbury said.
“Consumers are always looking for a reason to indulge, and holidays give them a reason — from religious and ethnic holidays to the Fourth of July. They turn to the bakery for sweet products at these times of year and enjoy purchasing single-serve items as a holiday treat for themselves, or in multiple amounts to serve at holiday get-togethers. Because each dessert is self-contained, there is less cleanup for the host!”
Small treats like cupcakes are also easy to incorporate into small, inexpensive gifts that shoppers can either give to friends during the holidays, or reward themselves with at any time of the year. For example, small cupcakes placed in teacups and topped with confectionery bows were a popular “gift with purchase” idea at this year's IDDBA show, Kingsbury said.
“Another great idea was the tiered cupcake: two cupcakes of different sizes stacked on top of one another and enrobed in fondant or butter cream,” she said. “The tiered cupcake makes a great dessert for a couple to share on their wedding anniversary.”
Single-serve items that are catching on with consumers, according to Abbott, are often upscale, indulgent versions of nostalgic treats such as Ho Hos or Ding Dongs made from scratch with all-natural ingredients.
According to “Cakes and Pies — U.S.,” a report from Mintel International, 61% of consumers surveyed want more unique flavors with their cakes, so room for growth is apparent.
“Consumers define the ideal snack as one that is healthy, tastes sinful and is convenient in all aspects,” Kingsbury said. “Handheld, portion-controlled indulgences fit this need perfectly.”