GROCERY: Packaged Meat: The strongest link

Nothing may be more all-American than hot dogs, with the notable exceptions of Mom, apple pie, and baseball, but recent sales performance data suggests the patriotic, if familiar-tasting, nosh has stalled -- and the reason could be that American tastes are migrating to spicier fare.

Dollar sales for hot dogs in food stores for the year ended Sept. 8, 2007 slipped 0.4 percent, on top of a bigger slide of 2.6 percent in 2006, according to data from Nielsen Strategic Planner. Meanwhile, other sausage varieties are on the upswing, with the bratwurst/knockwurst and dinner sausage segments showing 2007 gains of 6.5 percent and 2.8 percent, respectively. (Nielsen reports volume in stores with sales of $2 million or more.)

This signifies a potential shift in U.S. eating patterns, reflecting a new consumer interest in flavor. The result is that relatively bland traditional franks are giving way to more adventurously flavored meat links, according to Cris Eide, director, retail marketing at the retail division of Willmar, Minn.-based Jennie-O Turkey Store, a wholly owned subsidiary of Austin, Minn.-based Hormel Foods Corp. "Link alternatives to franks are generally more flavorful," notes Eide. "As people demand more flavors, they are easier to deliver in brat or sausage-type items."

Says Crystal Noble, director of meat and seafood at Tampa, Fla.-based Sweetbay Supermarket: "We have started to see a very robust growth in the dinner sausage category, driven by a substantial increase in the number of items that have been introduced into the market. These new items have been very well supported by marketing and coupons."

According to Noble, among the dinner sausage types that are taking off are fully cooked items, chicken varieties, and products aimed at "the backyard barbeque and tailgating customer, as well as the gourmet cook who is looking for an interesting flavor profile."

The brat packs

Jennie-O's take on the emerging bratwurst segment includes its new line of fully cooked turkey brats in Cheddar, Smoked, and Beer flavors.

"These are not only more convenient than traditional bratwursts by being fully cooked, but they [have] 50 percent less fat than regular pork brats," says Eide, adding that beyond merely flavor considerations, important as they are, "[t]he trends we have noticed the most have to do with convenience and health. People who want to eat more conveniently do not want to sacrifice taste or health."

Such consumer demands have also prompted Wisconsin-based Johnsonville Sausage, maker of traditional bratwurst products in a region where they're longtime favorites, to introduce two lower-fat smoked turkey varieties in a handy resealable package earlier this year. Observes company spokeswoman Sissy Biggers, "The taste is superior in the category, and the product is extremely versatile -- from grilling to spicing up recipes that call for sausage."

But some innovative brat rollouts don't mean that manufacturers have given up on frankfurters -- smart companies are figuring out how to teach an old dog new tricks. For example, Jennie-O has come out with Scooby-Doo Turkey Franks, which aside from featuring one-third of the fat of a regular beef frank, "appeal directly to kids, using the Scooby-Doo character," as Eide points out.

Other recent hot dog reinventions include the unveiling last December of revamped packaging for Downers Grove, Ill.-based Kahn's products for the first time in over a decade. The Sara Lee brand's new look consists of contemporary cavity packaging in Kahn's signature yellow, with its trademark American Beauty Rose logo, along with such practical consumer attributes as an easier-to-open package and easier-to-read product information, including the flavor designation and nutrition chart.

From iconic brand Oscar Mayer, a division of Northfield, Ill.-based Kraft Foods, has come what might be considered the ultimate in hot dog convenience: Fast Franks, individually wrapped microwavable hot dogs in their own bakery-fresh buns on specially designed paper trays. The product can be ready to eat in a mere 35 seconds, according to the company.

"Consumers told us they are time-constrained and wanted a more convenient way to enjoy America's favorite hot dog," explains Oscar Mayer s.v.p. and g.m. Tim Cofer. "We leveraged proprietary rising-bread technology from our DiGiornio brand, and the result is a hot dog in a bun that stays soft and warm when microwaved."

Since its rollout in summer 2006, "Fast Franks has captured a 1 percent share of the hot dog market, and repeat is ahead of our expectations," notes Cofer. "We'll continue to grow the category, as an industry, by innovating to meet consumer needs."

When it comes to promotions, Oscar Mayer depends on both new and tried-and-true approaches. "Thousands of consumers are participating in our 'Sing the Jingle Be a Star' promotion," says Cofer. "We've partnered with American Idol and developed a contest that features our famous jingles in a new and contemporary way. The promotion has been well received in the marketplace."

On the traditional side, the beloved Oscar Mayer "Wienermobile" is still making the rounds of supermarkets across the country -- not to mention showing up at prestigious events, including the Super Bowl -- accompanied by such activities as free samples, the giving out of prizes, and tours of the unique hot-dog-shaped vehicle.

At Sweetbay, franks continue to hold their own, despite the incursion of growing dinner sausage sales, says Noble. "I believe the reason why the frank category is not being impacted so substantially within the Sweetbay business is...that we have expanded our offering in low-fat frank products, turkey frank items, and convenient frank items. We are seeing our market share outpace the market in the low-fat frank and turkey frank categories. On the other hand, we have also seen some market share increase in the chicken, pork, and beef frank category [which] has great appeal with the value and price-conscious consumers who shop in our stores."

A cooler dog

In the realm of category management, Sara Lee Food & Beverage, which in addition to Kahn's offers hot dogs under the Ball Park and Hillshire Farm brands, among others, has been particularly busy. Introduced in February, the company's "M.E.A.T.S." program -- standing for "Marketing Evaluation and Targeted Strategies" -- was created to help retailers maximize hot dog and smoked sausage sales.

One way of doing that was through Sara Lee's Grilling Center and Corporate Cooler initiatives. The Grilling Center is a portable cooler with attached racks on which Sara Lee bun varieties can be merchandised. In common with the company's Corporate Coolers, the Grilling Centers offer themed POS materials and are designed to be placed in high-traffic areas to encourage cross-category purchases.

According to Sara Lee, retailers that participated in the program saw their share of marketplace category sales jump 1.5 to two points, and based on such results, several retailer partners have elected to keep coolers in place going forward.

Coming hot dog and other sausage products seem fated to expand on current concerns.

"I think future trends will remain closely associated with convenience and health," opines Jennie-O's Eide. "People will be more likely to look for products that meet their time and taste needs, but they will want them delivered with health benefits such as all natural, less fat, or fewer ingredients."

"Looking forward, I believe that we will continue to see the dinner sausage category grow by offering unique flavors that appeal to a broad spectrum of customers," says Noble of Sweetbay. "Although there has been some energy with flavored franks, I believe that the future growth for franks lies in providing the consumer with convenient solutions. One element I believe will be similar to both categories is looking to make the products more healthy, and I believe that offering antibiotic-free solutions will be important to remain relevant with our consumers."
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