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GROCERY: Refrigerated Dough: On a roll

Once the nearly exclusive preserve of moms feeding their young families, refrigerated dough products are now also starting to attract other shoppers as shifting demographics and concerns remake the consumer landscape.

The rising opportunities, say retailers and manufacturers, lie in healthier and more convenient products aimed at a more modern dough consumer. If grocers and vendors can work in concert to take advantage of emerging trends, they can make their mark on both baking sheets and balance sheets.

Credit refrigerated dough market leader Pillsbury for recognizing and seizing those opportunities. The division of Minneapolis-based General Mills saw that the half of all baby boomers set to reach or surpass the half-century mark this year represented a prime consumer target: smaller households that in many cases have seen their kids off to college or the independent adult world -- in other words, empty nesters.

"This is a growing segment of the population whose needs are often unmet by traditional food products, since they're just cooking for two people," says Andy Dahlen, marketing manager for Pillsbury's refrigerated pie crusts, sweet rolls, and crescents businesses. "For example, [they] enjoy serving bread at mealtime, but don't like the waste associated with other bread alternatives. They're looking for more convenient forms of refrigerated dough."

That's where Pillsbury comes in, with products tailored expressly to empty nesters' needs, such as Perfect Portions biscuits, which recently expanded to four varieties -- Buttermilk, Butter Tastin', Flaky Layers Original, and Reduced Fat Buttermilk -- all available nationally. The products come in a bakery-style carton containing five individual twin-packs and a window through which shoppers can see the fresh dough inside. Preparation is a breeze: Home cooks just peel open a twin pack, place the contents on a baking sheet, and place in the oven for less than 15 minutes to get hot, fresh biscuits for two.

To promote the product, Pillsbury went straight to food shoppers in their natural habitat. Notes Amy Clark, marketing manager for Pillsbury's Perfect Portions Refrigerated Biscuits, "Perfect Portions recently mounted a large sampling effort in grocery stores, because our research has shown that once consumers have baked the product at home, they have a high likelihood of repeat."

Pillsbury additionally supports its brands with national television advertising campaigns and nationally circulated FSIs; online initiatives through its Web site,; and public relations programs to raise awareness of the refrigerated baked goods section, adds Clark.

In sickness and in health

Another -- but often overlapping -- consumer segment to which Pillsbury is actively appealing consists of people concerned about their health, both those with existing medical conditions and those hoping to avoid developing them. To that end, the brand is introducing products that health-conscious consumers can savor without guilt.

"People who are looking to cut back on sugar can find options from Pillsbury in the refrigerated dough section," says Dahlen. One example of this is the brand's rollout of Splenda-sweetened Pillsbury Sugar Free Cinnamon Rolls with Icing, the first sugar-free cinnamon rolls available nationwide. The rolls additionally boast 25 percent fewer calories than Pillsbury's regular rolls and only one gram of saturated fat.

Other healthier Pillsbury products, in addition to the reduced-fat Perfect Portions variety mentioned earlier, include three reduced-fat varieties of its top-selling Grands! Biscuits and one reduced-fat version of Crescents.

This trend toward greater health awareness shows no signs of fading, as some retailers can attest.

"Consumers are continuing to look for 'better for you' products...including refrigerated dough," says Randy Deschaine, director of grocery at Delhaize-owned Sweetbay/Kash n' Karry Supermarkets in Tampa, Fla., which operates more than 90 stores across that state.

Of course, other influences are at play in the category, too, notes Deschaine. "Consumers are looking for convenience and value. [They] want to be able to prepare quick meals and snacks, and may not have as much time to do a lot of home baking, so instead of baking cookies from scratch, they'll use ready-to-bake refrigerated cookies from the dairy department or use a rolled pie crust to make a pie."

Another key trend is treating oneself, as evidenced by Pillsbury's introduction of Ready to Bake! Triple Indulgence premium cookies and S'Mores Graham Cookies with Hershey's Chocolate, the latter featuring first-in-category graham cracker-flavored dough.

The results of these various drivers on supermarket sales haven't been uniform, however. At Sweetbay/Kash n' Karry, according to Deschaine, "[r]efrigerated dough sales have been relatively flat, to a slight upward trend. Biscuits, sweet rolls, and crescent rolls have rebounded from last year's negative trends, due to the decline of certain diet trends such as Atkins. Refrigerated cookie sales remain flat as they continue to compete with many other snacking items across the store, as well as competition from supercenters and club stores."

The retailer has aided sales in the category through such methods as cross-promoting eggs and biscuits, supported by Pillsbury, and also featuring biscuits on sale.

ACNielsen data on sales of refrigerated dough generally tended to bear out Deschaine's observations. In food stores with $2 million or more in sales, the total category and cookie/brownie dough showed flat growth of 0.8 percent and 0.6 percent, respectively, for the 52 weeks ended Nov. 5, 2005, says ACNielsen. However, sales went up for dinner roll, sweet roll, and especially remaining refrigerated dough products. Biscuit dough volume, meanwhile, was down 3.5 percent, perhaps indicative of a change in consumer taste on the national level as shoppers are presented with ever more options in the category.

Going private

When it comes to private label, nobody, it seems, doesn't like Sara Lee. The leading manufacturer of store-brand refrigerated dough products in the United States, St. Louis-based Sara Lee Bakery Group also markets items under the Merico house brand for retailers that don't have their own store brands.

Its goal is "to have products that taste as good [as] or better than the branded products," says Matt Hall, v.p. communications at the division of Chicago-based Sara Lee Corp.

"Two of the promising opportunities for growth in the category are providing variety and capturing consumer interest through [the idea of] 'home-baked goodness,'" notes Hall. "Continual innovation and creation of a variety of flavors, sizes, and textures of products are important to maintain high consumer interest in the category. And in today's society, where consumers face hectic lifestyles, refrigerated dough products...represent the chance for consumers to provide home-baked goodness for their families. Despite its greater convenience, baking with refrigerated dough products provides the comfort and sense of providing for family that scratch baking represented to previous generations."

Sara Lee's latest refrigerated dough products in the crescent roll, biscuit, and cookie segments offer consumers a wider assortment of flavors and sizes. Nestled between its Jumbo and traditional-size crescent rolls are its new Big & Flaky Crescent Rolls, in Regular and Butter flavors, which come in six-count 11.25-ounce cans. The Jumbo Biscuit line, which offers a bigger, higher-quality product than basic biscuits, is getting two new flavors: Homestyle and Butter are joining the already available Buttermilk variety in eight-count 16-ounce cans. Finally, several new flavors are being rolled out in the Gourmet Bakery Style preportioned cookie dough line, including Sweet Chunk Macadamia Nut, Cranberry-Oatmeal-Walnut, Snickerdoodle, and Quick Chocolate Chip Mini Cookies.

As for store-brand sales, Hall observes that they've been "up slightly over the past year, with strength in cookies, dinner and crescent rolls, and miscellaneous dough products such as rolled pie crusts."

He adds that inclement weather during the baking season can have a considerable effect on sales. "Generally, the colder and nastier [it is], the better the sales of refrigerated dough products, which can bring home-baked comfort into the household."

What's clear is that private label can be an important contributor to the category. That's certainly true for Sweetbay/Kash n' Karry, which stocks the more than 2,000 Hannaford private label products of all types developed by its Scarborough, Maine-based sister division, Hannaford Bros. Co. and that retailer's supplier partners. Notes Sweetbay/Kash n' Karry's Deschaine, "We have a strong representation of private label refrigerated dough items, including pie crust, cookies, biscuits, crescent rolls, and sweet rolls. These items continue to perform well in a category with a very strong branded player, Pillsbury."

Working with retailers

Sara Lee teams with grocers to create the items they need. "[We work] in partnership with retailers to quickly develop new store-brand versions of branded products, which allows retailers to maximize sales in the refrigerated dough case," says Hall.

Promotions, he notes, "are tied to seasonal needs. Partnerships with retailers include cross-merchandising refrigerated dough products with complementary items -- for example, Sara Lee has partnered with a retailer to cross-promote store-brand crescent rolls with Hillshire Farm cocktail links."

What more can be expected from the refrigerated dough category? Deschaine cautions manufacturers of the health-conscious products now hitting the market not to sacrifice taste in pursuit of less fat or fewer calories. Hall looks to the further development of other current consumer trends, noting, "We will continue to see portion control, flexibility, and convenience be of importance to consumers." Pillsbury's Dahlen, however, offers his brand's strategy for ongoing success in the refrigerated dough arena: "Offering a variety of [innovative] products for a range of consumers is really key to growing the category."
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