Baby steps

Not all parents are fully committed to the wellness category when they shop for themselves, but they are more interested in organic and healthy alternatives when deciding what to feed their children.

By Carol Radice

When it comes to buying food for themselves, many parents zig and zag—at times they are health-conscious consumers and at other times they shop the conventional aisles. But when it comes to their children, they are much more entrenched in the health and wellness category, according to industry observers.

Given the obesity crisis happening in America today, experts say parents are more interested than ever in finding healthy alternatives for their family.

Sangita Forth, senior brand manager for the Nest Collective, cites organic, convenience and portability as three top trends driving interest in baby food today. The Nest Collective currently markets baby food under two labels—Plum Organics, which includes a full line of organic baby food and snack options from stage one through toddler age and Revolution Foods, a line of organic, on-the-go snacks for kids ages three and up.

With a mission of providing consumers products focused on nourishing babies, toddlers and older kids with healthy, organic foods from the highchair to the lunch box, the Emeryville, Calif.-based company was founded by two former Clif Bar & Co. executives who felt there were not a lot of healthy options for kids.

“Our core consumer lives an active life and she is looking for ways to balance that with having a family so anything that plays to portability and on-the-go is of interest to her,” Forth says.

Not surprisingly, she says moms with kids ages newborn to nine months in particular are looking for one-stop solutions for their baby needs.

She says retailers such as Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market have recognized this and have expanded their baby offerings and now carry diapers and clothing, food and bottles. “[Whole Foods] has done a good job establishing themselves as a place consumers can go to for all their green baby solutions. Even Costco is now selling organic baby food,” she says.

According to Forth, the Nest Collective was first to market with an innovative squeezable foil pouch. Not only is the overall carbon foot print lower, the pouch design is also delivering more convenience to the consumer. “Pouches are lighter and easier for her to carry around and priced at approximately twice that of a jar, so margins are higher for retailers,” Forth says.

Going mobile
Portability is also a focus at Florham Park, N.J.-based Gerber. This spring, Gerber will be expanding the Start Healthy, Stay Healthy Nutrition System with a number of new products, including new EasyScoop plastic packaging for its Good Start Infant Formula. The contoured handle makes the container easier to grip and the wide-mouth opening is easier for scooping, company officials note.

The two storage options also make formula preparation easier as well, according to company executives. Gerber will also be adding a number of items to its Graduates line including Fruit Pick-Ups and Veggie Pick-Ups, Breakfast Buddies hot cereal, Fruit & Veggie Melts and Fruit Splashers single-serve drink boxes. The SmartNourish Organic Cereal line of certified organic cereals is made with choline, which helps support muscle and memory function. It is available in two varieties—Brown Rice and Oatmeal.

Officials at Melville, N.Y.-based The Hain Celestial Group, Inc. had on-the-go moms in mind when they recently launched a five-SKU line of toddler smoothies that come in a pouch under the Earth’s Best brand. Senior brand manager Robyn Mermelstein describes the Sesame Street co-branded product as a combination of fruit mixed with a shelf-stable dairy product, adding that retailers can expect to see the Earth’s Best brand feature more pouch products this year. “We see this as an exciting packaging option that moms are really taking to and one that is adding incremental business to the category,” says Mermelstein.

While there is a trend toward convenience, taste also plays a role in determining the proper packaging format, according to industry observers. “You’ll never find me offering frozen products because I think it is close to impossible for moms to get the food at the right temperature and texture that babies like,” says Rondi Prescott, CEO of Healthy Times, the Poway, Calif.-based maker of organic baby food, biscuits, cereal, cookies and snacks.

Prescott urges retailers to apply the same guidelines for quality and features for products in their wellness set to the better-for-you baby category. “If ingredients such as sugar, fillers and preservatives are unwanted ingredients in other wellness products, then they shouldn’t be in baby food either,” she says.

Mom has a say
Whether they are seeking input about a new flavor or packaging innovation, many manufacturers turn to mothers for advice. Officials working on the Earth’s Best brand regularly hold roundtable meetings with moms to get their input on everything from new products to promotions. “We explore their needs, how mom’s life can be made easier and how we can help. If we are on the fence about a product, their input can influence what we do,” says Mermelstein.

Many employees at Earth’s Best are also moms, so they are frequently called upon to offer their opinions on products as well. While the company is always experimenting, there is also a very rigorous quality assurance process in place. “It is common to see our staff eating baby food to ensure it tastes good,” she says.

Shazi Visram, founder and CEO of New York-based HAPPYFAMILY, says that the company works closely with a pediatric nutritionist and a well-known pediatrician and medical consultant, Dr. Sears, to formulate products specifically for infant nutrition using cutting-edge natural ingredients, prebiotics, probiotics and DHA derived from a sustainable algae source. “Our brand promise is to offer optimal formulations at accessible price points, so we sell these innovations at comparable price per ounce retail when compared with our large-scale mass competition,” Visram says.

Hide and seek
While the drugstore channel has been a strong competitor to grocery stores in the conventional baby category, the Internet is fast becoming a preferred shopping channel for moms shopping the natural/organic segment. Observers say they are shopping online because they are increasingly frustrated that they can’t always find products they want in the grocery aisle. Baby sales at websites such as diapers.com and ecomom.com have grown exponentially in recent years and now that Amazon has purchased the former, competition is expected to heat up even further.

Forth points out that the organic space for baby food is still an underdeveloped segment, noting that there are tremendous opportunities facing retailers for placements in the conventional set, something retailers such as San Antonio, Texas-based H-E-B appear to have already figured out. “We feel this location is where we belong because our brand appeals to all consumers,” says Forth.

In an effort to help retailers make their baby space more successful, last year executives at the Earth’s Best brand conducted research to learn more about how mom shops the natural baby set. According to Mermelstein, mom first look for the appropriate stage food, then she looks for brands she likes and third she seeks out variety. Retailers who structure the category accordingly, she notes, will make it easy for mom to shop. “Often organic baby food is placed in the retailer’s organic aisle, but that doesn’t truly play to how she shops the category,” she adds.

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