Leveraging Ready-to-Eat Cereal for Higher Center Store Sales

Breakfast has never been bigger. Seventy percent of American consumers now say it’s the most important meal of the day,1 and the demand for delicious, healthy morning meals has helped make breakfast-related categories in-store a $100 billion business in retail outlets.2

This new consumer demand for healthier morning fare is good news for other breakfast classics, such as ready-to-eat cereal (RTEC). RTEC has been and still is the No. 1 breakfast food in the country,3 eaten at 30 percent of morning meals4 and by two-thirds of consumers at least every two weeks.5

Indeed, signs point to an RTEC renaissance: Dollar sales have continued to improve during the past year,6 and many retailers are growing again in this category.7 This is great news for retailers because the RTEC category is a driver of both total retailer dollars and traffic to the store.8 RTEC is found in shoppers’ baskets on 14 percent of grocery trips, and the total ring is $44 higher when cereal is in the basket.9 Because of its strong turns and reach, RTEC is one of the most profitable categories within center store (coming in at 11 out of 127 categories)10 and the second most productive among breakfast-related categories.11 In the breakfast foods category, cereal is No. 1 in unit sales, trips, repeat purchase rate and household penetration.12 Other center store categories that have low value and frequency in basket and tend to be over spaced include baking mixes, desserts/gelatins, canned fruit, and jams/jellies/spreads.13

Simply put, RTEC is a powerhouse category. Best of all, there’s still room for retailers to better know—and further grow—the category. Let’s take a comprehensive look at RTEC today: what, when and how the cereal consumer eats, a walk along the path to purchase, plus plenty of opportunities for retailers to boost sales and store traffic while exciting and delighting cereal fans.

RTEC category basics

Cereal is both a well-loved classic and an evolving category, facing new challenges, welcoming new segments and embracing new opportunities.

For many Americans, no grocery cart is complete without a box or two of their favorite cereal. Few foods are as fundamental to shoppers’ grocery lists: In fact, 89 percent of shoppers who purchased cereal had planned to buy something in the category as they entered the store.14 Combined with the high penetration rate of the RTEC category, it is clear that RTEC is a destination category15 and a trip and aisle traffic driver for U.S. retailers—a go-to leg in any well-prepared grocery shopper’s plan of attack.

In the decision tree, the first thing shoppers decide at the shelf is whether they want a mainstream brand or a natural/organic product, followed by secondary decisions about kid appeal, all-family appeal, simple health and value.16 Nutrition matters too: Consumers look for calcium, protein, fiber and whole grains in their packaged foods,17 and cereal delivers on all these fronts—especially fiber, which only 5 percent of Americans18 get in recommended amounts. More than 60 percent of Kellogg’s cereals, for example, offer a good or excellent source of fiber. In addition, RTEC actually accounts for less than 4 percent of added sugar intake in the United States.19

While whole grains are an important part of a healthy diet, they’re not the whole story. The enriched refined grains found in RTEC provide a key plant source of iron, folic acid and B vitamins, nutrients that many Americans are lacking. Meanwhile, manufacturers have been working hard to make kids’ cereals healthier than ever, with less sugar and more fiber than in the past.20 No wonder children who eat cereal for breakfast tend to have lower BMIs (body mass index) and a lower incidence of obesity than children who skip their morning meal.21

Together, these attributes and consumption trends suggest several projected growth areas in RTEC. Health and wellness-oriented cereals are projected to grow, as are granola and muesli, all of which wear the whole-grain “health halo.” Meanwhile, the growth of beyond-breakfast cereal consumption bodes well for RTEC products designed for later-day or immediate eating occasions, such as smaller-sized, on-the-go cereal snack packs. In fact, leading brands have already begun leveraging innovation to jump start the conversation and boost growth: Kellogg and General Mills are launching more than 90 new products this year, according to Nielsen.22

Category growth will also be fueled by several key demographics. Cereal has long been a go-to for busy parents, and RTEC continues to have a higher-than-average buy rate among bustling families.23 Other demographics have emerged only more recently. Hispanics now represent one of the biggest RTEC consumer segments, averaging one extra box purchased per year compared with the general population;24 the Top 6 Hispanic brands are Cheerios, Honey Bunches of Oats, Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, Special K, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and Froot Loops.25 By 2018, an estimated 83 percent of the category’s growth will be fueled by Hispanics,26 which represents a challenge for retailers and manufacturers.

Overall, cold cereal consumption remains very high, with 9 in 10 U.S. households purchasing cold cereal at least occasionally.27 And though sales slipped in the past few years, the good news is that shoppers are not abandoning the category. The opportunity is in buy-rate: Among households whose RTEC purchases have declined, most weren’t even aware they were buying less cereal28–they were simply buying cereal less often.29 Retailers can take additional steps to boost RTEC sales. In the next section, we’ll lay out strategies for engaging with cereal consumers both before they enter the store and once they’re in the aisle.

RTEC path to purchase

Let’s start with a step-by-step look at the path to purchase in RTEC.

As mentioned previously, cereal is usually a planned purchase. Accordingly, nearly all (98 percent) RTEC shoppers do some sort of preparation before they hit the grocery store,30 with the majority opting to make a list (84 percent)31 or check the pantry (60 percent) to see what’s needed.32

Many shoppers also ask other members of the household what items are needed or preferred, and prioritize their budget around foods with “mass appeal,” especially in households with kids.33 Many parents even find themselves craving foods their kids recommend-8 in 10 shoppers say a child’s request has left them wanting a breakfast food again.34

Brand names also play a big role in the decision-making process. In fact, the Top 10 RTEC brands make up 45 percent of all category sales,35 including Cheerios, Special K, Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Mini-Wheats, Kellogg’s Raisin Bran, Lucky Charms, Froot Loops, Chex, and Cap’n Crunch.36

Though cereal shows up in baskets across all kinds of shopping trips, true to its pantry staple nature, RTEC is most often purchased as part of a stock-up trip,37 with stock-up shoppers typically buying two boxes of cereal per trip. However, cereal stock-ups aren’t an everyday or even every week occurrence. The average cold cereal shopper makes just one cereal-buying stock-up trip per month.38 This underscores the point made previously: RTEC sales have been stagnating due to the decline in frequency of purchase–not because consumers are leaving the category.

Because the average RTEC shopper makes just one big trip down the cereal aisle each month and often has cereal on the shopping list already, getting on shoppers’ radar before they hit the store is crucial.

Retailers can connect with cereal shoppers at several pre-store touch points. Ads play a big role in trip planning-55 percent of shoppers check weekly retail ads to see what’s on sale, while 43 percent peruse the newspaper or Internet for discounts,39 so highlighting cereal promotions in weekly or daily marketing communications is essential.

Connecting via mobile is critical too. Four in 10 shoppers regularly use their mobile device to help plan grocery trips,40 with most incorporating an app or two into the process. Couponing apps are the most popular, but many shoppers also use list-making apps and recipe apps.41 To best leverage this mobile milieu, consider building meal-planning capabilities into apps or other digital tools.

But even though cereal shoppers tend to plan their purchases in advance, there’s still plenty of room to encourage experimentation and fuel incremental growth in-store.

The growing snacking occasion

While cereal remains a pantry staple, the category is far from stagnant. Seven out of 10 households eat cereal as a snack, and snackers eat it multiple ways, including in a bowl with milk and dry;42 30 percent of cereal is now consumed outside of breakfast.43 Many cereal fans are even finding fun new ways to get their fix. Creative consumption behaviors include mixing cereal with yogurt, mixing more than one kind of cereal in a bowl, and using cereal in a dessert recipe.44

Because cereal has become such a popular snack, an increasing number of retailers are dedicating shelf space to on-the-go cereal options such as cereal in a cup. Some retailers are even devoting entire express lanes, checkout lanes or “stores within a store” to items intended for immediate consumption. This is producing benefits: Single-serve offerings are growing at a faster rate than both the cereal segment and the breakfast segment as a whole.45

Optimizing RTEC in the breakfast aisle

Shoppers make purchases based on their own needs as well as the needs of their families, and research shows most shoppers can find what they’re looking for using visual cues in the aisle.46 But retailers can more effectively connect with their target consumers by shelving breakfast aisles according to target age flow, i.e., taste continuum. This approach encourages shoppers to stop and browse at multiple points along the aisle rather than cruising right through–and it works. In one study, shoppers stopped more often when traversing a breakfast aisle shelved by target age flow,47 increasing unit sales by 5 percent and resulting in a 4 percent higher average dollar price per item.48 What’s more, the entire breakfast aisle got a boost, including on-the-go cereal, hot cereal and toaster pastries.49

Cereal shoppers also like dedicated sections for granola products and natural/organic items. This arrangement not only makes shopping easier and more intuitive, but it helps point those looking to try something new toward the right section.50

Organizing the shelf along a health continuum, with fun, indulgent cereals on one end, simple goodness in the middle, and healthier options at the other end of the spectrum, is a great approach for on-the-go items. Follow this with a section for nontraditional options such as snack-bag cereals, toaster pastries and drinkable breakfasts, as well as a separate section for hot cereal.

Cereal: The No. 1 display choice

RTEC display packs a big punch: Among the Top 10 center store categories, cereal sees the greatest sales lift when on feature and display at 526, with the next closest Top 10 category coming in at 405.51 Accordingly, cereal is the No. 1 display choice within center store.52

To enhance the cereal aisle even further, focus on optimizing display mix. RTEC lift and ROI significantly increases as the quality of the merchandising improves. This includes identifying win-win promotion partners, pairing brands that build higher dollar rings and boost ROI. Some manufacturers offer strong analytics and merchandising options that can enable the right brands in the right quantities and pricing to maximize retailer resources in each store.

Winning with promotion

Another big opportunity lies in spurring unplanned or incremental purchases through promotions. This can be tricky–as we’ve seen, cereal shoppers tend to enter the store with an agenda in mind–but studies suggest that well-executed promotional efforts pay off. Scanner data show that stores enjoy a 14-point lift in RTEC sales when combining feature and display promotions.53 Remember: Infrequency of purchase is one of the category’s biggest challenges. To fully optimize the RTEC category, encourage more frequent purchases through these kinds of one-two punch promotions.

But don’t forget to keep things fun. Package inserts and promotions engage consumers in a playful way (think games, competitions and giveaways, seasonal items).

Manufacturers who have invested in these kinds of promotions with retailers have successfully realized incremental sales, particularly in the past year.54

RTEC promotions can also extend beyond the breakfast aisle. Retailers have a huge opportunity to boost multiple category sales by cross-merchandising RTEC with perimeter items, especially produce. As an example, with produce sales up 4.2 percent in 2014 and on track to keep growing in 2015,55 retailers can piggyback on the produce aisle’s success by cross-merchandising key items, such as bananas or blueberries, with cereal. Cereal’s high penetration and destination status can create an extra purchase in these categories or an impulse purchase for both categories. Yogurt, eggs, bacon, cream cheese and, of course, milk also have high penetration among buyers of several leading cereal brands.56

Clearly, the RTEC category is rife with opportunities for innovation, expansion and growth. While the category remains a breakfast staple, it’s also evolving into new eating occasions, consumption behaviors and core consumer segments. Retailers that stay ahead of the changing cereal landscape and engage with the cereal shopper–both in-store and out–stand to see sales and store traffic flourish. Now that’s what we call a big breakfast.

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