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New and improved offerings in canned and packaged foods are taking the tarnish off of center store’s reputation for being dull, uninspired and outdated.

boxgirlFace it, the frozen aisle, prepared foods and the perishables departments have put a big dent in the sales of canned and other packaged groceries in recent years. However, manufacturers are fighting back with new products, packaging and concepts that are livening up once staid categories and drawing shoppers back down the center store aisles.

“Just because our category exists in the center store doesn’t mean we can’t be innovators,” says Kevin Miller, vice president of marketing at Old Orchard Brands, a Sparta, Mich.-based manufacturer of shelf stable and frozen concentrate juices. “Smart food manufacturers take cues from outside their category in an effort to stay ahead of trends, to address the needs of today’s Millennial consumer and to introduce incremental consumption opportunities.”

In Old Orchard’s case that means offering frozen concentrate items like Old Orchard Fruit & Veggie, Iced Tea and Iced Coffee, which allows consumers to make refreshing drinks similar to what they would get in McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks, for a fraction of the price. “We introduced these to speak to consumer trends found outside the traditional juice category,” Miller says. “This represents new territory for our company and the juice category in general.”

Kellogg Co. is also broadening its offering with new cereals, including Frosted Mini-Wheats Touch of Fruit Raisin, S’mores cereal and Kashi Organic Promise Raisin Vineyard cereal. “We continue to feel good about the cereal category’s long-term growth potential,” says Michael Allen, president, Kellogg US Morning Foods at Battle Creek, Mich.-based Kellogg Co. “Cereal is the number one food chosen by Americans for breakfast, with 82% of women and 79% of men starting their day off with a cereal breakfast.”

Kellogg is addressing the desire for healthier snacks with several options, including Nutri-Grain Fruit & Oat Harvest bars, Kellogg’s To Go Morning Biscuits, Special K Indulgent Moments 70-calorie snack bars and Kashi Crunchy Granola and Seed bars.

“We know more and more people are seeking wholesome snack choices that provide positive nutrition and we’re confident that retailers will see very positive response from consumers to our newest wholesome snack products,” says Brian Huff, president, Kellogg US Snacks.

Hormel Foods, the Austin, Minn.-based manufacturer of scores of cupboard staples, including Spam, Hormel Chili and Mary Kitchen Hash is working to reignite passion in the canned foods aisles.

“We are taking a strategic approach that focuses on three areas—innovation, partnering with retailers and continuing to build our brands,” says James M. Splinter, group vice president, grocery products, at Hormel Foods.

spam“For example, we continue to introduce new flavor options of our Spam family of brands, such as jalapeno, black pepper and teriyaki, as well as expanding into microwave options with our Spam microwave meals,” he says. “Additionally, brands like Mary Kitchen hash and Dinty Moore stew are also expanding product offerings.”

Hormel’s innovative 28 SKU line of Hormel Compleats shelf-stable microwavable meals is winning back center store share lost to frozen dinners by creating a similar eating experience for places without freezers, like offices.

“Hormel Compleats recently introduced new breakfast offerings and cheesy pasta varieties to provide customers with convenient, quality options for any meal throughout the day,” Splinter says.

According to Splinter, retailers can rebuild center store market share. “The key is to have optimal product assortment at the shelf that is based on demonstrated consumer insights. We need to listen to consumers,” he says. “Also, take advantage of opportunities to promote the category and insist upon a systemic plan of new product introductions backed by strong product trial and repeat purchase marketing support.”

Some of the most interesting new product introductions can be found in the canned soup aisle, a sector that has been losing sales and share of stomach for years. Campbell Soup Co., for example, is tinkering with its product mix to reach out to time-pressed Millennials. “Campbell’s is reframing what mealtime means, with a variety of new products and packaging formats that tempt the taste buds and fit the lifestyle of the Millennial generation and beyond,” says Darren Serrao, senior vice president, innovation, for Campbell North America, based in Camden, N.J.

Among its offerings are six Campbell’s Slow Cooker Sauces line, packaged in convenient pouches and designed to be used with CrockPots and other slow cookers.

“Campbell’s Slow Cooker Sauces are designed for home cooks with busy schedules who would love to prepare a delicious and satisfying meal each night, but normally don’t have the time, so they rely on frozen food and takeout dishes on weeknights,” Serrao says. “By utilizing the convenience of the slow cooker, these sauces let people create delicious and budget friendly meals that fit into their hectic lives.”

McCall Farms is also adding to the ease of meal preparation with its new Margaret Holmes Simple Suppers. Packed in 28-ounce cans in Jambalaya, Dirty Rice, Chili and Creole varieties, consumers simply add a meat protein and can have a meal that serves up to five people, ready in five minutes.

“What makes Margaret Holmes Simple Suppers unique is that any other meal kit you buy, like Hamburger Helper, you have to cook the rice and noodles, but we have the rice cooked right in the can,” says Annie Ham, director of marketing, for McCall Farms, based in Effingham, S.C.

A little fishy
Bumble Bee Foods is using traditional, digital, social and in-store media to highlight the healthiness and ease of preparation of its tuna, salmon and other canned seafoods.

“With today’s active families running to this practice and that practice, how do you make time for a healthy dinner or snack?” asks David Melbourne, senior vice president, consumer marketing and CSR, at San Diego-based Bumble Bee Foods. “Quite frankly, that’s where center store really comes into play. You have it in the cupboard. You can whip it up in minutes in the kitchen, throw it into Tupperware and take it into the car, completely avoiding the drive-thrus and the hassles of perishable types of product.”

The company is promoting the healthiness of canned seafood through its Bee Well for Life platform at www.beewellforlife.com. “This is a very interesting platform to really address this whole issue of center store and to bring consumers back to the center store,” Melbourne says.

New products, including Bumble Bee Prime Fillet Gourmet Flavors, made with prime albacore tuna and diced jalapeno, chipotle or sundried tomatoes, are also causing more consumers to check out the canned seafood set. “It really puts a contemporary view on what is available in the category today,” Melbourne says. “It is not just your same old tuna or salmon.”

And the Margaret Holmes, Glory Foods and recently acquired Bruce’s Yams from McCall Farms are not your same old canned vegetables.

“Our products are all about Southern seasoned vegetables,” says Ham. “Southern vegetables are becoming almost a trendy thing right now. People have this real infatuation with Southern-style food and we’ve really tried to build on that with our products,” she says.

“We’re not embarrassed that our products have authentic fatback in them. It is what makes them authentic. They taste like something that has been cooking on a stove for two hours. You are not going to get that with a can of mainstream green beans. You can replace canned green beans with frozen or fresh, but you can’t replicate the Southern-style, slow cooked taste in those other sections. Those products don’t exist in fresh or frozen.”

Astute retailers might want to take a cue from Walmart and merchandise the products in a separate Southern vegetables set, grouping all of the Southern-style brands and varieties together. “A big thing is making the Southern vegetables its own destination in the canned vegetable aisle,” Ham says. “It is sort of like what you see with Goya or other brands that have their own little section.”

Heavy promotions can also help retailers dramatically increase sales of their canned foods, says Robert Budway, president of the Can Manufacturers Institute, the Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing can manufacturers.

“We had a promotion with Bi-Lo in 2013 that consisted of an in-store multi-label pallet promotion on canned foods that was hugely successful,” Budway says. “We are looking to expand that type of promotion in 2014 with other retailers. We encourage retailers to promote canned goods as they can really drive sales.”

Environmental responsibility
In addition to offering big savings, retailers can also draw Millennials back to canned goods by tugging at their environmental heartstrings.

“Cans have the highest recycling rate among all packaged goods,” Budway says. Steel cans have a 75% recycling rate, compared to 65% for aluminum beverage cans, he adds.

To address concerns from younger consumers about sustainability and fisheries management, in 2013 Bumble Bee launched Wild Selection, a line of sustainably sourced canned seafood in a partnership with the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) where a portion of the proceeds—$1 million a year minimum—will be used for fisheries management and marine conservation efforts around the globe.

“We are really trying to bring that consumer to the center store and make them understand that a good amount of the products that are available in center store are in fact sustainably sourced, and that we as a company are really doing good things,” Melbourne says, adding that the Bumble Bee flagship line is also sustainably sourced and that the company closely monitors all aspects of its environmental impact.

“It is really important for consumers and retailers to understand that companies like Bumble Bee are not living in the Dark Ages,” Melbourne says. “We are progressive in terms of what we are doing as a leader, for the industry and for the category.”

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