Crisp & creamy

Packaged salads and refrigerated dressings are popular with consumers looking for healthy and convenient meal ideas.

By Elizabeth Louise Hatt

When the economy took a dive, consumers’ priorities shifted. Value made it to the top of the shopping list as customers began look­ing for new ways to serve healthy, delicious meals on a budget. The trend toward value, combined with an increased awareness of health concerns, has made packaged salads and refrigerated dressings a hit at the dinner table and in the lunch box.

“Packaged salads are an incredible value for all the mixing and washing you eliminate,” says John Burge, vice president of sales and marketing at Watsonville, Calif.-based Classic Salads. “Twenty years ago there was no packaged salad category and now it’s almost $3 billion at re­tail. It suits the trend of being healthy and convenient.”

Consumers are sticking closely to their shopping lists, so adding, and highlighting, value is all the more important to grab impulse purchases, according to industry observers.

“It is less about straight discounting and more about helping customers recognize they can put a great tasting meal on the table with our product,” says Randy Bartter, vice president of marketing for Brea, Calif.-based Marie’s Dressing. “For example, by attaching a recipe booklet and a coupon for Marie’s new creamy yogurt dressings to every head of lettuce, we not only assist the customer in creating new and interesting ways to use produce in everyday meals, but we also create a link between fresh produce and our dressing.”

Refrigerated dressings can be linked to a number of departments throughout the store. For example, last year Marie’s Dressing launched a line of potato salad dressings. “It connected Marie’s with the $1.8 billion dollar potato category,” says Bartter.

Industry experts note that there are also endless combinations of salad blends and dressing flavors that retailers can cross-promote to inspire new meal ideas. Sandpoint, Idaho-based Litehouse Foods partners with packaged salad companies for a promotion that offered a free bag of salad with every Lighthouse dressing purchase. “Consumers are more price conscious today. One of the biggest things that retailers can do to combat this trend is to make it easier for consumers to find high value discounts throughout the store,” says Patrick Herbst, director of category management at Lite­house. The company has had success with customized promotional programs for retailers, he adds, especially for seasonal products.

Beth Pappalardo, senior associate brand manager of Kraft salad dressing at Kraft Foods, based in Northfield, Ill., suggests featuring specific salad combinations and displaying the dressing and salad items together, as well as any seasonal products the retailer wants to promote. Dressings should also be cross-merchandised with other items such as cut vegetables to suggest their alternate use as a dip, Pappalardo says.

While cross-promotion has help spark some meal ideas, new lines of salad kits are also helping ease the burden of meal preparation while focusing on natural ingredients and providing a restaurant-quality product.

Naturally Good

Monterey, Calif.-based Dole Fresh Vege­tables revamped its salad kits to address these trends. “Research showed us consumers want a packaged salad kit with toppings and dressings that are as natural as our lettuces and vegetables, so we took our nine salad kits and made them all-natural,” says Chris Mayhew, director of marketing. “The industry is seeing certain kit varieties—like Dole’s Asian Island Crunch, Southwest Salad and Caesar All Natural Salad Kits—that offer the same taste/flavor profiles of popular restaurants.”

Chiquita-owned Fresh Express, based in Salinas, Calif., launched a salad kit program this year with six flavors, including one limited-time variety and a second to come in January 2011. “Customers are more willing to try new products as they are looking for greater variety in their meal planning,” says Chiquita spokesperson Andrew Ciafardini. Also new this year, the company’s Artisanal Salads feature lesser-known greens offering consumers a more exotic, restaurant-style option, company officials note.

Industry observers are seeing a shift towards ­­all-natural ingredients in the refrigerated dressings category as well. To meet customers’ needs, Columbus, Ohio-based Marzetti introduced Simply Dressed Salad Dressings. “The dressings are made with a minimal number of all-natural, simple ingredients, such as extra virgin olive oil, canola oil and sea salt, and there are no preservatives, trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, MSG or artificial flavors or colors,” explains Carla Laylin, the company’s group marketing manager, produce dressings and toppings.

Go organic

Along with a focus on natural ingredients, organic offerings have shaped the category in recent years. The price premium for organic is very small, says Craig Hope, chief customer officer of San Juan Bautista, Calif.-based Earthbound Farm. “As a result, there is an organic penetration in the salad category of more than 16%, whereas organic penetration in total food is only 3.7%.”

Organic packaged salads have continuously grown since their inception, and according to industry observers they have recently outgrown their conventional count­erparts. “The entire pack­aged salad category was down 1% last year but the organic segment grew—that’s very dramatic,” says Burge. Industry observers attribute the growth to consumers’ concerns about health, and the tendency for organic shoppers to have higher paying jobs so a dip in the economy has less of an effect on their eating habits.

Of those who have not converted to buying only organic produce, many are open to the idea. Burge says the key to getting organic packaged salads in customers’ carts is to display them alongside conventional ones. “Say you have 40 different flavors of packaged salads, of which five are organic. The key is to integrate them as it they are just another flavor, instead of displaying them in a segregated organic area,” he says. “The salad shopper is going to look in the salad section for package salads. That shopper can’t choose an organic one if they don’t see it.”

Simcha Weinstein, director of marketing at Bridgeport, N.J.-based Albert’s Organics, stresses the importance of labeling organic products so they are easy to find among conventional salads. “From the shoppers perspective, when they approach the packaged salad case, it typically looks like a sea of plastic and names,” he says. “With all the brands side by side, it’s really important to have signage depicting which items are organic.”

Some stores are going a step further and incorporating a wet section in the produce department specifically for organic products. Packaged salads are typically allocated six to eight feet of space next to the wet rack, says Dan Philips from the Bellevue, Wash.-based food market design company Phillips En­terprises, Inc. “We revamped the produce de­partment of one store and gave organic wet produce 20 feet of space,” he says. “Their sales went up 33%—that is huge.”

Packaging upgrades

Many manufacturers are emphasizing nutritional information and offering meal ideas right on the package. A clean, easy-to-recognize look also allows retailers to create attractive displays.

In February, Dole will be updating the on-pack salad guide it introduced in 2009: the numerical taste and texture scales will be replaced with word descriptions, and a color-coding system will be introduced—blue and green for sweet/subtle blends, yellow and orange for zestier/bold blends and pink and purple for more complex/robust varieties. “The next phase includes enhancement of the on-pack salad guide, new on-pack graphics, color coding and blend-specific information,” says Mayhew.

Earthbound Farm packages its specialty salads to stand out with clamshell containers. The company has seen excellent consumer sales trends for these products, says Hope. “They protect the quality of the tender leaf products much better than bags and they are much easier to merchandise. Our customers are telling us how important it is to be able to visually see the produce on display.” Weinstein agrees. “Our clamshells are the most popular. They are easy for retailers and consumers to handle and they tend to keep the product fresher than bags,” he says.

Burge attributes the clamshell’s appeal to its local handpicked image. “It is a much more attractive display. In a 4-foot section of floor to ceiling salads in a grocery store, several rows of clamshells can really make an impression.”

Eco-conscious consumers also have something to be happy about. Fresh Express’s latest development is the Natursave, a bag that uses 50% less plastic than the 2009 Fresh Express Spring Mix bag. It won a 2010 Packaging Innovation award from the United Produce Association.

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