Sweeten profits

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Sweeten profits

By Bryan Salvage - 03/14/2016

When it comes to sweeteners or flavorings for food dishes and value-added beverages prepared at home, a wide variety of syrup and honey products are already being used and enjoyed by millions of Americans. While products exhibiting superior flavor at affordable prices sell best, more shoppers are also seeking natural, more healthful product alternatives featuring cleaner labels.

“We are seeing a trend in simple and natural raw foods — treating yourself, but choosing products that are better for you,” says Connie Feeley, key account executive for Granby, Quebec-based L.B. Maple Treat Corp.

More consumers prefer to buy real foods, which is a strong pure maple syrup driver, says Emma Marvin, director of marketing, Butternut Mountain Farm, Morrisville, Vt. “It’s a single-ingredient food that’s made in the woods, not in a lab,” she adds.

Don Ladhoff, president of Fresh Smart Solutions, Chisago City, Minn., which is the retail marketing agency for the National Honey Board in Firestone, Colo., suggests that honey fits in well with the trend toward real foods.

“Honey has the best ingredient label imaginable — the only ingredient listed is honey,” he says. Competition is fierce in both product camps. Retailers could win new customers and satisfy current ones — while boosting their profits — by offering a wide range of private label syrup and honey products.

Challenging landscape

High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is perceived as “less healthy” than other syrups, which places downward pressure on its growth, says Susan Viamari, vice president of thought leadership for Chicago-based market research firm IRI. But other syrup forms, in general, face stiff competition, too, from other products.

“Consumers are trying alternative toppers such as Nutella, fresh fruit, cream cheese, hummus, etc.,” she adds. “There are also more on-the-go breakfasts and less sit-down meals. Syrup is a tough topper for on-the-go.”

But pure maple syrup is a bright spot from a health attribute standpoint. It delivers more nutrition than other common sweeteners and has one of the lowest calorie counts, notes Mark Harran, president of the Spencerville, Ontario-based International Maple Syrup Institute; president of the Litchfield, Conn.-based Maple Syrup Producers Association of Connecticut; Connecticut’s delegate to the Simsbury, Conn.-based North American Maple Syrup Council; and owner of artisan maple syrup business Brookside Farm in Litchfield, Conn.

And maple syrup is no longer just a pour-on condiment for breakfast pancakes and waffles on weekends. It has expanded into other product segments such as energy drinks and alcoholic beverages, Harran says.

Television cooking shows also encourage maple syrup use at home, says Peter Baldwin, marketing and promotions manager, Bascom Family Farms, Brattleboro, Vt.

“It is the most sustainably produced sweetener.…. and consumers are using it more as a primary sweetener,” he adds.

Meanwhile, varietal honey is replacing sugar more often because of its health benefits. Acashia honey, for example, reportedly cleanses the liver.

Shoppers and retailers are moving more toward organic plus raw, unfiltered honey, says Geri Birks, project manager, Smitty Bee Honey Inc., Defiance, Iowa. The latter two products maintain the pollen in the honey and are strained, not ultra-filtered or pasteurized — two processes that often kill beneficial enzymes in honey, she adds.

Leverage trends

Value messaging is important in this flat economy, Viamari says, and syrup innovation/marketing should also tap into on-the-go eating. She advises retailers to consider product pairings such as co-marketing/co-merchandising store brand syrup with on-the-go oatmeal cups.

“I would promote private label maple syrup, at least seasonally, in a bundle with other breakfast foods such as pancake mixes, frozen pancakes and bacon,” Harran says.

In addition, retailers should offer a variety of pure maple syrups under their own brands.

“While both organic and conventional [pure] sales are growing, organic maple is growing faster,” Baldwin states. “Carry both Grade A Dark Robust and Grade A Amber Rich.”

Point-of-purchase materials explaining advantages/differences between maple syrup and other sweeteners spark sales.

Some retailers offer too limited of a selection of syrup SKUs, Baldwin adds.

“If they don’t carry a 12-ounce or 32-ounce size, they will not get the heavy user who knows the value of larger sizes and will shop elsewhere to get it,” he warns.

Meanwhile, store brands account for almost 50 percent of honey’s dollar sales at retail. Despite such muscle, honey is purchased only 1.9 times per year, states New York-based Nielsen.

“Opportunities exist for retailers to make people more aware of their store brand honey through cross-merchandising,” Ladhoff notes.

Nielsen also reports that 21 percent of honey dollar sales occur during a promotion.

“Think what could be accomplished with more promotion,” Ladhoff adds. “Only 9 percent of honey dollars are occurring from displays. Opportunities exist to make honey more visible beyond the center of the store in secondary store locations such as the produce department.”

Retailers could drive store brand honey sales by providing new usage ideas.

“One summer promotion we’re creating involves displaying honey near the fresh meat case to create a simple glaze for grilling chicken,” Ladhoff says.

Birks points to shelf talkers and “shelf screamers” — 3-inch by 5-inch cards — as effective means to attract shoppers.

“Recipe cards explain different ways to use honey” she adds.

To draw attention to regionally produced store brand honey Birks recommends placing it in the specialty section, health food section or baking aisle. Shipper displays of squeezable honey bears boxed and sent to a retailer for use as an end-cap or aisle display are also effective.

Packaging is critical

When it comes to packaging for syrup and honey less is best.

“Consumers are looking for environmentally friendly packaging,” Feeley says.

For pure maple syrup, glass is still the predominant package.

“The two iconic packages are a flask-style glass bottle with handle and a 32-ounce plastic jug with handle,” Marvin says.

And Baldwin notes a trend toward larger bottle sizes.

“Stores traditionally sell 8-ounce and 12-ounce glass bottles,” he says. “More retailers are seeing nice category growth with a 32-ounce jug. Retailers need to keep their pure maple syrup category diverse with different sizes and grades, organic and pure.”

Birks and other insiders say the 12-ounce PET honey bear bottles are the biggest selling honey item, but there is a movement toward glass.

“Some 12-ounce inverted [bottle] containers are a little cleaner and more upscale,” she adds.

Retailers also could aid in building at-home honey consumption by helping to make products more visible in the kitchen.

“An apothecary jar could serve as a decorative, on-counter honey container … rather than [a bottle or jar of honey] that’s relegated to being hidden in the pantry when groceries are unpacked at home,” Ladhoff explains.

Do emphasize the health attributes of honey and pure maple syrup.

Don’t ignore the growing popularity of 32-ounce bottles of maple syrup.

Do cross-merchandise own-brand syrup with complementary products such as oatmeal.

Don’t ignore the trend toward raw, unfiltered honey.