TRUCKEE, CALIF. — Jolie Weber, chief executive officer of Wise Foods, wasted no time cutting to the chase on a retail trend that’s top of mind for many snack producers.
“Do you see in the industry that the center of the store is dead?” she asked a panel of experts during SNAC International’s annual Executive Leadership Forum (ELF).
“My answer would be not just ‘no’ but ‘absolutely not,’” replied Karl Schroeder, president of the Seattle division for Albertsons Cos. “But I would put a couple asterisks by that, which is it’s not dying, but it’s certainly harder and there’s just a wash of change coming at retailers as it relates to center store.”
Mr. Schroeder along with Venessa Yates, vice-president of snacks for Walmart, and Burke Raine, vice-president and general manager of snacks for Conagra Brands, provided industry insights on a wide range of topics during a panel discussion on “Adapting and Innovating to Exceed Consumer Needs” that was moderated by Ms. Weber during ELF, a meeting of leading snack executives held Oct. 6-8, near Lake Tahoe, Calif.
While the snack aisle in the center store remains an anchor for many of the nation’s top-selling brands as well as for regional competitors and even emerging better-for-you ones, sales in the supermarket perimeter continue to garner a greater amount of share. Numerous studies have shown that the perimeter, which features fresh produce, meat and in-store bakery-deli items as well as special endcap displays, also is attracting key demographic groups such as millennials and baby boomers.
“Trends are changing quickly,” Mr. Schroeder noted.
This has resulted in many food categories expanding or shrinking, prompting retailers to shift the amount of space they allocate to products on their stores’ shelves.
“That’s creating a lot of havoc, which is also adding a lot of cost for us, but necessary costs,” he added.
Mr. Schroeder cited a recent consumer survey that showed that the center store ranked slightly higher than the perimeter of “what makes you most loyal to the retailer that you shop at.” The results, he said, “kind of blew me away a little bit. You would just assume the opposite.”
He listed several major factors that are affecting center store sales, such as how convenient the store is laid out and whether the displays are attractive and feature the products consumers need.
Heightened brand building along with new product innovation also draws traffic to the center store, Mr. Raine said.
“There are no tired brands, just tired marketers,” he said, quoting one of his former chief executives. “There was a notion that the center store was unhealthy and brands there were going to have a headwind as a consequence. My belief was that it was actually the opposite.”
Historically, Mr. Raine added, major C.P.G. companies were hesitant to make changes to iconic brands for fear that they may alienate their core, loyal followers. Shifting consumer attitudes have rewritten that part of the marketing playbook for manufacturers and retailers.
“What we are seeing now is for a millennial, variety is the routine,” Mr. Raine explained. “If you’re not constantly evolving your brand and keeping up with consumer trends that are changing far faster than you’re used to, then all of a sudden you end up with stagnated brands that don’t command any interest and don’t get picked up anymore.”
The better-for-you (BFY) movement continues to flourish.
“It’s not only a trend, but the new reality,” Mr. Raine pointed out.
However, consumers are redefining what BFY actually means, Ms. Yates said.
“There have been products that have been launched over time that aren’t necessarily good for you or healthy for you, but they may be better than something else,” she said.
Transparency, she added, is driving that change.
“Better for you is evolving in terms of what you’re expecting to see inside a pack or in the store,” she told the ELF audience.
Fewer artificial ingredients, an emphasis on their source of origin and earth-friendly packaging all play a role in consumers’ minds when it comes to BFY products.
“Is it just a better-for-you play, or is it a better-for-me, better-for-my-family, better-for-the-environment conversation?” she asked.
Ms. Yates urged snack producers to be extra diligent when rolling out BFY versions or changing formulas of existing snack products to avoid compromising consumer trust and loyalty.
“When removing artificial flavors and ingredients, be very thoughtful in the bridge between what core consumers love today and rolling out the reformulated or reimagined product,” she said.
Mr. Schroeder observed that the major retailers and snack producers — seeing the successful innovation coming from start-up companies and incubators — are upping their game on new product innovation, which can only mean good news for the future of the center store.
“A lot of the C.P.G.s are figuring out natural and organic and healthy and premium whereas a few years ago, so many iconic brands were on their heels,” he observed. “Nobody was buying their products anymore, which is a problem for us just on growth but funding for growth.”
Today, the resurgence in product innovation among all companies is not only good news for retailers but also for categories, especially the impulse-driven snack market that has outperformed the overall food industry in recent years.
“A lot of the bigger players are marketing machines, and once they get into a category or get back into a category, that’s going to have a continued favorable impact on it,” Mr. Schroeder said.