The spices of life

The growing popularity of ethnic cuisine, along with the trend toward healthier eating, has led to increased spice and seasoning sales.

Whether by necessity or design, cooking has become cool again. Consumers across the country are spending more time in the kitchen trying to recreate restaurant fare or creating new and exciting dishes for their families to enjoy. While there are only so many ways chicken, fish or steak can be cooked, more home chefs are beginning to realize that with the use of spices the possibilities are endless.

Sales figures support the growing use of spices. According to the Chicago-based SymphonyIRI Group, for the 52-week period ended Dec. 25, dollar sales at food, drug and mass (excluding Walmart) for the spices and seasonings category topped $2 billion, a modest increase of 3.1% from a year ago. Even better for supermarkets is that an overwhelming majority of spice sales occur in the grocery channel.

Also helping boost spice sales is the fact that many shoppers are taking a greater interest in what they consume, with many avoiding fats and sodium. “People are eating healthier, using salts other than iodized salt such as sea salt and salts with other minerals,” says Mick Whitlock, president of Vanns Spices, based in Baltimore. “They are generally becoming much more aware of what they are eating.”

Consumers are also expanding usage beyond the traditional spices. While some of the more common spices such as basil and cinnamon remain popular, observers say home cooks are experimenting with exotic spices that they may not be so familiar with.

Not surprisingly, there is a battle for space at the grocery store in the spice category. With consumers paying more attention to the category, more suppliers are appearing on the scene with new products. That means a fight for the still-limited space for the category.

That may not be good news for industry-leader McCormick, which dominates the marketplace but may be vulnerable to the trend toward including other suppliers in the spice planogram.

Whitlock says Vanns’ catalog encompasses about 350 different spices from around the world. “We certainly have the every day, but we also have all the hard to find spices in stock and ready for our customers to put on their shelves,” he says.

Of course the category consists of much more than individual spices as blends have become increasingly popular. Industry observers say that one area that retailers can really set themselves apart is with private label custom blends. For example, in addition to its branded product Vanns has a private label offering with more than 2,000 recipes on hand for retailers to choose from. Company executives say they also work closely with retailers modifying existing blends and creating new ones.

“There is a lot of give and take,” says Whitlock. “Vanns Spices is an agile company. If somebody comes to us, it is very rare that we say no right away. We do our best to make something possible.”

The growing popularity of ethnic foods, particularly Indian, Asian and Mexican, is also driving spice sales. Consumers are looking to experiment with these cuisines and spices, and spice-based sauces, can be inexpensive ways to do so.

“People used to look for basil and Italian seasonings,” says Heidi Davis, social media and event marketing manager for The Spice Hunter, a San Luis Obispo, Calif.-based brand of the Richmond, Va.-based C.F. Sauer Co. “Now they are looking for chili powder and Mexican seasonings, products they used to buy in a packet that comes with other things added that perhaps they didn’t want.”

In an effort to meet the demand for Indian food, American Roland Food Corp., based in New York, is re-launching its line of Indian sauces. The company is also offering a line of curry pastes in yellow red and green versions. Yet despite the growing popularity of Indian food, Lisa Kartzman, American Roland spokesperson, says many people still do not understand the cuisine.

“Indian food is full of flavor,” she says. “Most people think ‘Oh, hot or oh, curry.’ That’s not all it is. Indian food has these amazing robust flavors and some interesting nuances.”
The best way to get that message across is via in-store demonstrations, says Kartzman.

Tied in with the re-launch, American Roland began its demo schedule in February. The demos will run for about 60 days, taking place primarily in metro areas in New York, California and the midwest.

While demos can be effective, the difficulty is that some supermarkets are not quite sure where to merchandise the sauces. “Quite often they are in the sauces section, where they can get lost. Sometimes they are in the Asian section because retailers just don’t know where to put them,” says Kartzman.

As the primary retail outlet for spice sales, the increased usage of these and other exotic spices plays right into supermarkets hands. However observers say that in order to really drive sales cross promotion is critical.

“If a shopper doesn’t need spices they are not going to go to the spice section,” says Aldon Reed, industry consultant. “But when spices are displayed throughout the store the consumer is more likely to grab a new spice to try.”

Observers say one of the best places to display spices is at or near the deli and other service departments where shoppers tend to review displays while waiting to be serviced.

Retailers can also take advantage of spices versatility as more and more consumers are using spices beyond dinner meals. For example, Davis says curry in eggs and ceyenne mixed into brownies have become quite popular. Whitlock says some of Vanns’ retailers have done well placing barbeque rubs at the meat counter and extracts in the baking section.

“Some stores will take a Japanese spice and put it in the ethnic section,” says Whitlock. “With curry and some of the blends we make, supermarkets will place them in the Indian section, so there are different locations around the store. It’s good for them, good for us and it makes it easier on the consumer.”

Making it easy for consumers to shop the section cannot be emphasized enough, say observers. Since most consumers do not include spices on a shopping list the impulse nature of the category means educating consumers can go a long way toward driving sales. Point-of-sale materials such as hangtags as well as label information are common ways for manufacturers and retailers to educate consumers.

Observers say innovation also helps drive sales. McCormick & Co., based in Hunt Valley, Md., is doing its part to stay ahead of the curve by launching 37 products this year. These include two new varieties in its Perfect Pinch Salt-free Seasonings line; Fiesta Citrus and Southwest Sweet ‘n Smokey. New in its McCormick Gourmet Collection Blends are Cuban, Moroccan, Tuscan and Southwest seasoning. A Molasses Bacon and a Steakhouse Onion Burger are new in the McCormick Grill Mates Seasoning Blends line.

This month Vanns will be introducing a Greek Island spice and has plans for additional new products in the summer. Bektrom recently launched its Beer Can Chicken, Wild Game and Fried Turkey seasonings. Innovation doesn’t only come via new products; packaging plays an important role as well.

The Spice Hunter recently revamped the labeling for its grilling blends, emphasizing the fact that they are salt-free as well as making them a little more appealing to the eye. Vanns switched to a clear label so shoppers would be able to see the spices inside the bottle.

“People buy with their eyes, but they also eat with their eyes,” says Whitlock. “We have gotten a really good response from our customers with the clear bottles.”

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