Can-do attitude

Supermarket front-ends are be­ing bombarded with Spam. But fear not, as this is no cyber attack. It is just proof that shoppers are seeking out the best bang for their buck during the recession—and returning to the traditional supermarket center store mainstays such as canned meats and seafood items at the expense of trendy restaurants and specialty stores.

“It is a great time to be in the canned seafood business, specifically because of affordability and also because of  health and wellness,” says Dave Melbourne, senior vice president of consumer marketing for San Diego-based Bumble Bee Foods.

“Consumers turn to tuna during times such as these because it is an affordable and versatile source of protein,” says Joe Tuza, senior vice president of marketing and research development for Pittsburgh-based StarKist Co. “The corresponding increase in meals at home is stimulating our category and we are raising the profile of StarKist to leverage this interest. We are doing new television commercials that showcase tuna and the variety it offers in meal solutions for the family, while bringing back our beloved icon Charlie the Tuna.

“Tuna continues to act as a traffic builder for the grocer and we know that the lift for shelf-stable tuna on promotion is significantly higher than other categories,” Tuza says. “Also, the basket ring is higher when tuna is in the shopping cart. So by featuring tuna in their in-store advertising and promotion, grocers can leverage the incremental, traffic building nature of the category.”

Many retailers are using private label to steer even more shoppers to the canned meat/seafood set. “As with many private brand categories, canned seafood and meat sales are very strong due to their price advantage and quality,” says Chuck Harris, director, business development at Topco Associates LLC, based in Skokie, Ill.

Topco offers a full line of canned items, including pink salmon, sockeye salmon, tuna, chili, corned beef hash, Vienna sausage, luncheon meat, beef stew, chicken, turkey chili and chicken chili soon. “More consumers are purchasing private label now for its great savings and comparable quality to the national brands,” Harris says. “Our hope and goal is to retain these consumers so that even after the recession is over they become store brand loyalists.”

But even national branded canned seafood and meats are bargains compared to other proteins, experts say.

“Canned Alaskan salmon is a great value,” says Larry Andrews, director of marketing for the Seattle-based Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. “You’re basically getting a pound of protein for $2, plus the healthy profile of fish and omega-3 and since the bones are edible canned salmon is an excellent source of calcium. That’s why canned salmon product is doing quite well.”

So are other canned proteins. Reversing a long-term slide, consumption of canned tuna increased to 2.8 pounds per capita in 2008, the sardine category is being revived with new products and packaging and canned meats are making a comeback.

According to Infoscan Reviews from Chicago-based Information Re­sources, Inc. (IRI), for the 52-week period ended July 12, canned meat sales in supermarkets, drugstores and mass merchandisers (excluding Wal-Mart) reached $914 million, a 6.2% increase over the previous year. Sales of Hormel’s flagship Spam saw a healthy 6.3% increase to $116.4 million, while unit sales rose 4.1% to 36.8 million cans.

“Since their introduction 72 years ago, Spam products have always been recognized as a great value,” says Dan Goldman, senior product manager of the Spam family of products for Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods. “How­ever, through our consumer research we’ve found that the top driver of Spam sales is its taste.”

The campaign is being supported with spot television, national print and radio advertisements and a revamped website——that tap into Spam’s playful personality, according to company officials.

Goldman says retailers can leverage the power of Spam by building endccap displays with recipe ideas. “In today’s environment, consumers are eating at home more often and looking for new ways to be creative at meal time. Suggesting a simple recipe such as Spam n’ Mac n’ Cheese offers consumers a new twist on an old favorite, as well as a lucrative cross-merchandising display opportunity that builds basket sales.”

Cross-merchandising is en­coura­ged to build sales of Spam’s sister canned products, Hormel chunk meats and Valley Fresh poultry. “Hormel Foods has been successful with promoting bag­ged salad with 100% natural Valley Fresh chicken and pairing Hormel chunk meat with bread and mayonnaise,” says Alice Cobb, product manager.

“As consumers continue to prepare more meals at home, chunk meats offer a shortcut by saving time and allowing consumers to make simple dishes with ingredients they have on hand,” Cobb says. “A bagged Caesar salad can become a Chicken Caesar salad. A boxed rice and pasta mix becomes the main dish with chunk chicken.”

The recession is causing more consumers to inexpensively dine at home, as witnessed by the increased traffic Camden, N.J.-based Campbell Soup Co. has seen to its Campbell’s Kitchen website ( From September 2008 to May 2009, more than 12 million people visited the site, an increase of 60% over the same period last year, according to company officials. More than 60 of the recipes featured on the site use the company’s Swanson canned chicken, including such favorites as Fiesta Chicken Casserole, Chicken Quesadillas and Chick­en Pot Pie.

“Swanson Premium Chunk Chicken products offer a good value and are an important part of many value meal solutions,” says Jina Sohn, brand manager, simple meals beyond soup. “As a result, we have seen considerable sales growth in the Swanson chicken business in the past year, with significant growth in the dollar channel.”

The line includes white chicken breast and white and dark chicken meat in 4.5-ounce, 9.75-ounce and 3-ounce 3-pack (9 ounces total) cans. In October, Swanson introduced a 12.5-ounce can of Swanson White Chicken Breast. “Swanson White Chicken Breast is 98% fat free and is the only branded canned chicken that is certified by the American Heart Association,” Sohn says.

Since 90% of canned chicken is used in chicken salad, Campbell officials recommend that retailers cross-merchandise it with mayonnaise, mustard, bread, dried fruit and dry seasonings. “Campbell has developed specially designed gravity feed racks that hold up to 12 cans of Swanson chicken; the racks can be hung from the shelf in the condiments aisle and other aisles to remind consumers to pair their condiments and other ingredients with Swanson chicken as part of their canned chicken recipes,” Sohn says.

Swanson and Valley Fresh are getting some extra competition from Bumble Bee, which recently introduced Bumble Bee Canned Chicken. “We’re in test market right now with four SKUs, including a breast meat and a white chicken product,” says Melbourne.

Bumble Bee also owns Sweet Sue, which is renowned in the South for its canned chicken and dumplings. “It is a feel-good type of meal and that is what people want today,” he says.

Canned tuna, on the other hand, is a year-round powerhouse. “Our research shows consumers love canned tuna and seafood, but that there is an opportunity to bring a more contemporary flare to the category,” Melbourne says. That’s why Bumble Bee is creating new tuna-based recipes like tuna tacos and tuna wraps and rolling out new products such Bumble Bee Prime Fillet Tonno, a yellow fin tuna packed in olive oil that retails for $1.99.

“Some of the other high-grade Tonno tuna products in olive oil that are out there run up to $15 a can,” Melbourne adds.

Bumble Bee has also added a very low-sodium albacore tuna in spring water to its Bumble Bee Prime Fillet line and entered the all-natural canned tuna and salmon business with the Wild Selections brand. “It is targeted at the natural and organic customer and is ideal for special sections and specialty distributors,” Melbourne says.

StarKist recently introduced its Tuna Salad Sand­wich-Ready Pouch­es. The 3-ounce pouches are available in Chunk Light Tuna Salad and Albacore Tuna Salad varieties that retail for $1.37 to $1.99, depending on market and variety. “The taste and convenience of the pouch draws a more upscale, contemporary household to center of store,” Tuza says. “Consumers that may typically shop the store perimeter are now attracted to the center store by a product that uniquely meets their needs and tastes, as well as their on-the-go, healthy lifestyles.”

Andrews of Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute says traditional canned salmon is cooked in the can, resulting in a product that is very moist with all of its natural juices. “If it is a traditionally packed product you’re going to find both the skin and the bones,” he says. “Retailers should tell consumers not to shy away from that product. We tell people that just a couple of stirs of the fork and all of that disappears and there is such great nutritional value.”

Like its Alaskan salmon counterparts, Eureka, Calif.-based Wild Planet Foods likes to tout that it uses American-caught tuna prepared in a similar fashion to salmon. “Our difference [from other tuna] is that we don’t pre-cook our fish so that all the fat and juices are still in the fish when it goes in the can,” says president Bill Carvalho.

“The other process dehydrates the fish and the juices and fats have to be replaced with oil, spring water or vegetable broth and cooked again. That is a twice-cooked product and that damages the texture and taste profile significantly.”

Wild Planet is expanding its product line from tuna and salmon to include California sardines, using the same species of fish that was that was once the cornerstone of Monterey’s famed Cannery Row, a different species of fish than Mediterranean or North Atlantic sardines. Wild Planet’s sardines are still caught off the coast of California, but because of expense issues they are shipped to Vietnam for canning.

Wild Planet California Sardines are available packed in olive oil, soy oil with lemon, spring water and basil oregano marinara sauce. “That’s my favorite and an in-house recipe that we developed,” Carvalho says.     

With its Season brand, Sec­aucus, N.J.-based Man­isch­e­­witz Co. is one of the largest producers of sardines, with some 30 different items. Sales have been skyrocketing partly because of the fish’s high concentration of omega-3s. “We see products in the marketplace touting 150 milligrams of omega-3s, but a can of our sardines routinely have over 3,000 milligrams of omega-3s,” says David Rossi, vice president of marketing. “We are one of the most potent sources of omega-3s and we feature that prominently.”

Season’s latest development is the EZ Peel Foil Lid, which is used on some SKUs. “Most sardine cans have a pop-top, but ours is a foil lid without sharp edges, which makes it very easy to open,” Rossi says.  

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