Turning Up The Heat

Adventurous shoppers keep sales of spices and seasonings on an upward track.

Discovery. Exhilaration. Satisfaction. Shoppers are finding these sensations and others at their local supermarkets, and apparently, they need not look farther than the spice aisle.

“Exciting pops of spicy, sour, herbal and sweet flavors surprise the senses and bring new energy to dining,” says Laurie Harrsen, director of consumer communications and public relations at Hunt Valley, Md.-based McCormick & Co. “Americans' love affair with spicy flavors evolves; onetime fans of ground or crushed red pepper are discovering the smoky heat of chipotle and the richness of ancho chili pepper, or the pungent wasabi and the bite of ginger.”

The overall spices/seasoning/extract category, as defined by Schaumburg, Ill.-based Nielsen, has grown steadily over the past five years. Total category dollar sales were up 2.2 percent to $2.1 billion for the year ending Dec. 25, 2010, at food stores with at least $2 million in sales (excluding supercenters), according to Nielsen data. Overall units sold were up 2.6 percent for the period, to nearly 900.6 million.

With more folks eating in during the recession, home cooks have been looking to jazz up their everyday meals. “In addition to the ‘eating in’ trend, growth in the seasonings market has been driven by Americans' growing interest in gourmet cooking and ethnic cuisines, which often requires an investment in new varieties of seasonings,” says Chicago-based market researcher Mintel.

And most of those shoppers are buying their spices from traditional grocers. Conventional supermarkets are the leading channel for seasoning sales, accounting for nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of FDMx seasoning sales, Mintel reports, noting that food stores are expanding their selection of private label seasonings and adding bulk seasoning sections to deliver greater value to customers and better compete with mass merchandisers and club stores.

Mintel forecasts growth of 18 percent in the U.S. seasonings market and sales of $4.3 billion in all channels by 2014. And while Mintel analysts believe that the “eating in” trend has peaked, many consumers will continue to cook at home. “Modest growth in gourmet, organic and natural seasonings will counterbalance sales declines from a shift to private label offerings,” the market research firm says.

Dry seasonings were the best-performing segment in the past year, with sales up 4.4 percent to $1.1 billion. Pepper sales were up a mere 0.4 percent, while sales of salt and salt substitutes rose a scant 0.1 percent. Ironically, amid the ongoing attack on sodium, sales of table salt rose 0.9 percent, while sales of substitutes dropped 2 percent.

Among the top sellers at Akron, Ohio-based Mustard Seed Market are cayenne pepper, turmeric, curry powder, saffron, and organic basil, oregano and garlic. These and others contribute to “a variety of enticing home-cooked recipes from a world of cuisine made with delicious, all-natural, non-irradiated herbs and spices,” says Carol Moore, director of retail food service at the natural and organic foods retailer with two stores in northeast Ohio. “The Mustard Seed shopper favors the seasonings of the Latin, Mediterranean and Asian cuisines, often referred to as the ‘big three’, with some Indian.”

Growing consumer awareness of spices' health benefits is helping, too. “People are looking for believable, approachable and achievable health and wellness,” McCormick's Harrsen says. “Spices and herbs add flavor and antioxidants to food to help improve our diets without adding salt, fat or sugar.”

Among McCormick's new offerings in this area: Perfect Pinch Seasoning Blends, offering 18 blends, including five salt-free varieties, and 30 percent Less Sodium Seasonings, new versions of popular blends with reduced sodium and no MSG or artificial flavors.

Meanwhile, Lawhorn's Signature Seasonings are 65 percent to 70 percent lower in sodium than most seasoned salts and blends, as well as all natural and kosher, notes Tim Lawhorn, CEO of Haines City, Fla.-based Lawhorn's Corner Inc. “Today's consumer is looking for healthier ways to prepare meals, and we fill that need for them,” Lawhorn says. “Eating healthy is gaining a tremendous amount of attention, and people are trying to make smarter choices.”

Wellness is not only being tied to what seasonings don't have, but also to what they do contain. Kory Kazimour, senior brand manager for Simply Organic, a brand of Norway, Iowa-based Frontier Natural Products Co-op, says organic spices like turmeric and curry are hot sellers right now, “not only because of what we're seeing featured on the food channels, but also because of the increasing body of research that is being published about the health properties associated with these products.”

Through its consumer newsletter, Mustard Seed Market promotes the use of herbs, spices and other health-promoting ingredients. “I believe that the general public, and our customer in particular, is better informed, and is looking for clean, organic ingredients to help them look, feel and live better,” Moore says.

Consumers also are “trying to find a balance of good taste, economical use and simplicity,” Lawhorn says. “Mealtime has to be fast and efficient. People just don't have time, or don't know how to cook anymore.”

Kazimour concurs: “Certainly, organic continues to be a driver, but for bottled spices, so does convenience. … For many home chefs either returning to the kitchen or discovering it for the first time, the perception of homemade without actually having to do everything from scratch is a preferred characteristic.”

To address this, Lawhorn's is developing two new seasoning blends, due out early this year: a Mexican blend and an Italian blend. “Both of these products will provide consumers with healthy alternatives for cooking Mexican and Italian cuisine without having to buy additional ethnic spices,” Lawhorn explains. “Traditionally, with Italian and Mexican recipes, one would have to buy a handful of different spices to achieve the desired authentic flavor of both cuisines.”

Ellen Bouchard, bulk category manager at Simply Organic, says organic continues to outpace natural spices in the bulk category. “We're seeing a differential of 15 percent growth rate for organic spices, compared to 4 percent growth rate for natural,” she says.

Despite recession-driven cutbacks in household spending, Mintel analysts believe there's still a sizeable consumer market for innovations that are higher-priced, premium and organic. “Some 40 percent of all seasoning-using respondents in Mintel's custom consumer survey indicate that they can taste the difference between brands, and pay more for premium quality,” the market research firm reports.

However, the analysts warn, seasonings companies should continue to offer products that are low-priced and value-positioned, as “frugal conformists” account for 36 percent of all respondents who buy seasonings.

Running Through the Mill

Suppliers of spices and seasonings are working with retailers in various ways to promote sales, but most agree that the most important tactics are cross-promotion and sampling.

“It is very important to partner with a center-of-the-plate or side item consumers prepare at home, in order for them to taste our product,” says Lawhorn, noting that when conducting grocery store demonstrations,“we generally cook four to five different proteins, as well as starches and vegetables, to demonstrate the versatility of our seasonings.”

Mustard Seed Market holds many tastings, “and [we] try our best to cross-merchandise within the store between departments,” Moore says. “We also provide many food demos, with support from our suppliers. This enables us to offer the busy home cook an easy and nutritious meal solution using a spice blend, marinade, dressing or sauce made with natural or organic herbs and spices.”

Harrsen agrees that cross-merchandising with the meat department and weeknight meals section can inspire new meal ideas and additional meat buys. “The McCormick sales team works closely with the retail buyer to identify the best opportunities and needs to maximize the shelf space to be highly profitable and successful,” she says. Further, McCormick recently introduced an in-store grilling display that looks like a large stainless-steel grill and a holiday display that resembles a kitchen stove and cabinets.

Meanwhile, Simply Organic uses its retail partners as a conduit to consumers with quarterly consumer-targeted pamphlets. “These brochures contain information about a particular spice or herb, the behind-the-scene sourcing story, and recipes,” Bouchard explains. “In addition, we developed a small brochure that educates consumers on our sustainable botanical sourcing program, called ‘Well Earth.’ Increasing numbers of shoppers want to know where products are coming from and if they are being sourced in a sustainable and ethical manner.”

What are the next trends to watch for in spices and seasonings?

“We believe consumers will continue to seek new flavor experiences,” Kazimour says. “Ethnic flavors are likely to continue to gain in popularity, especially authentic Mexican, Mediterranean, Indian and Caribbean/Cajun cuisines, which are healthier and more nutritious than their Americanized versions we've grown accustomed to.”

Bouchard adds: “Sustainability will continue to gain in importance in terms of packaging. Our Frontier bulk herb and spice business continues to expand.”

Mustard Seed Market's Moore sees “an ever-growing interest and opportunity to provide foods with health-promoting ingredients and spices. …We truly do research and make every effort to choose spices for their medicinal benefits as well as for their culinary flavor as we learn that even a small amount of spice will have great and positive value.”

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