Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Progressive Grocer: Big Dippers

August 2011
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Big Dippers
Chilled dips and spreads such as hummus are proving more popular than ever with health- and flavor-seeking consumers — and manufacturers and retailers stand to reap the rewards.

It's a good time to be in the hummus business. Just ask John McGuckin, VP of sales for White Plains, N.Y.-based Sabra Dipping Co. LLC, a leading brand in the segment. According to McGuckin, Sabra has gone from a $10 million company to one worth $300 million in a mere six years — all because of the Mediterranean chickpea-based concoction.

What's more, the company enjoyed phenomenal double-digit sales dollar and sales unit growth for the 52 weeks ending June 12, according to figures from Chicago-based SymphonyIRI Group for food, drug and mass merchandisers, as more and more consumers discovered hummus' nutritious properties — it's high in both fiber and protein — and delicious taste. Overall, SymphonyIRI's hummus-dominated refrigerated flavored spreads category turned in an impressive performance at food, drug and mass during the same period, with dollar sales and sales units up 20.4 percent and 21.5 percent, respectively. McGuckin's assessment goes straight to the heart of the matter: "Hummus is the gold of the entire dip category."

The main reason for this is greater consumer interest. "We're capturing a lot of new users," notes McGuckin, adding that Sabra is successfully overturning the perception once held by many consumers that dips are unhealthy with its line of better-for-you products. "People are looking for dips that taste good and are highly flavorful, but healthy," he observes. "You have to have both now." Still, McGuckin admits that there's "a long way to go" before hummus is a staple in every American fridge.

Among the ways that Sabra hopes to accomplish that goal is through a TV advertising campaign recently launched in select markets. "Share the World" shows how the brand unites people in the same way that it brings together ingredients from around the globe, including tahini from the Middle East and chickpeas from the northwestern United States and Canada. The company has additionally introduced two new varieties, Basil Pesto and Buffalo Style, both of which illustrate the continuing evolution of hummus as a product tailored to American consumers' tastes.

Other hummus manufacturers are taking advantage of the product's newfound popularity as well. Although, as Sabra's McGuckin notes, hummus and other dips perform especially well during such key occasions as Super Bowl, July 4, Labor Day and the winter holidays, "[d]ipping is not just for entertaining anymore," asserts Jerry Goldner, VP North American sales at Taunton, Mass.-based Tribe Mediterranean Foods, which offers 15 varieties of blended hummus and seven varieties of topped hummus, each one all natural. "With many consumers eating small meals throughout the day, and with dip offerings becoming increasingly healthy, dips are the perfect option to have with vegetables, crackers or pretzels as a quick, easy snack or meal."

Last month, Tribe introduced refreshed product packaging for its entire line, as well as four new flavors: South American-inspired Cilantro Chimichurri, a zesty blend of fresh cilantro and spices; Olive Tapenade, containing chopped Mediterranean olives with a savory herb kick; Savory Mushroom, featuring a rich assortment of spices; and Mediterranean Style, with a light drizzle of olive oil and a dusting of paprika on top of classic hummus. All products now come in 8-ounce containers with see-through green lids, and some flavors are also available in 16-ounce tubs. "We unified our robust product portfolio under a single design and package, making it easier than ever for consumers to spot their favorite flavors and view the hummus inside," explains Goldner.

At Cedar's Mediterranean Foods in Ward Hill, Mass., meanwhile, the focus is on making the company's all-natural hummus even healthier, through the addition of items featuring the patented GanedenBC30 probiotic from Cleveland-based Ganeden Biotech, along with what's being touted as the world's first probiotic-fortified wrap.

"Consumers are trying to eat healthier, and we see the addition of GanedenBC30 to some of our core items as a line extension and as an extra added benefit that many consumers will be looking at as a point of differentiation," noted Dominic Frocione, VP of sales at Cedar's, which also makes yogurt dips. The probiotic-enhanced items are slated to roll out this autumn.

Creating a 'Dip Destination'
When it comes to promoting hummus and other dips, manufacturers agree that "tasting is believing," as Cedar's Frocione says. "If a retailer can do a well-coordinated demo, we will all see positive growth," he adds, referring to the overall hummus segment.

"[S]ampling is by far the most effective type of merchandising for Tribe Hummus," concurs Goldner. "Once consumers try Tribe Hummus, they love it — so sampling is a very effective way of bringing new users in."

Sabra's McGuckin maintains that sampling is crucial in overcoming many consumers' unfamiliarity with the product despite its higher profile, a circumstance he vividly labels "the 'ick' factor." Sampling can also give shoppers creative new ideas on how to include hummus in recipes or the way it's often used throughout the Mediterranean region, as a sandwich spread.

Another promotional slam-dunk is to place the product near such obvious accompanying items as pita chips, wraps and the like. "Cross-merchandising with complementary products also works well for us," observes Goldner. "We often seek to partner with other natural snack brands, and this has been an excellent way for us to reach new consumers."

One recent example of brand cooperation involved a sports tie-in. "This past winter, we executed a major national in-store promotion with [Snack Factory] Pretzel Crisps around the March Madness theme," recounts Goldner. "The program was very successful for both brands, and we are planning a similar program early this fall with a football theme. On a wider scale, Tribe Hummus works to consistently provide retailers with value-added promotions that help support and grow the hummus category."

In the realm of merchandising, Sabra has embarked on a plan to showcase its hummus and other products (more on those below) by positioning them through advertising as a "Dip Destination" within the deli department. McGuckin points out that the "experiential nature" of the deli section lends itself to a "treasure hunt mentality" on the part of consumers looking to meet entertainment needs, which the company is eager to foster through its range of items.

Beyond Hummus
In a bid to "enhance brand position and equity," as McGuckin puts it, Sabra is additionally moving beyond just the hummus segment with the introduction of fresh salsa, guacamole and Greek yogurt lines in a variety of flavors. A particular focus, according to McGuckin, is on popularizing fresh salsa, which right now represents just 8 percent of the salsa segment. Made with real, skin-on California tomatoes and fresh-cut vegetables, Sabra's salsa, which comes in Classic, Southwestern Style, Home-style and Chunky Pico de Gallo varieties, is "vibrant and flavorful," he notes, while the Greek yogurt dips feature fresh veggies, herbs and spices in four savory flavors, and the authentic guacamole boasts Mexican-grown Hass avocadoes in both of its SKUs.

Ongoing Flavor Innovation
For the dips and spreads category in general, and hummus, in particular, the sky appears to be the limit as long as new variations continue to captivate shoppers. "[F]lavor innovation will continue to be the driving force behind the hummus category," says Tribe's Goldner, whose observations could apply to all dips and spreads. "While consumers will always purchase traditional flavors of hummus ... they also look to the category to provide new and interesting flavor experiences. Consumers are broadening their culinary horizons, so delivering high-quality, unique flavor varieties will only become even more important."

Reflecting on the recent massive success of hummus, which has served his company so well, Sabra's McGuckin quips: "The only other category that's comparable is Greek yogurt, and now we're involved in that, too."

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