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    GROCERY: Healthy Snacks: Fast learners

    Healthy snack manufacturers and retailers have started wooing the back-to-school market with new products, packaging, promotions, and displays.

    Despite skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity and resultant illnesses like diabetes -- now increasingly seen in its adult-onset form in youngsters -- one thing remains constant: Kids love to snack. Sniffing the prevailing winds, several savvy manufacturers of healthy snacks, and the retailers that stock them, are using the back-to-school season as the perfect time to promote their products.

    Recent research suggests that the timing has never been better to interest kids in healthy snacks. According to IRI's Healthy Kids Report: Understanding the Role of Better-for-You Products in Kid-Driven Food and Beverage Categories, released last month, within such "kid-driven" categories as cookies, crackers, portable breakfast and snack foods, and salty snacks, healthy products have grown a total of 31 percent since 2002, vs. 7 percent for mainstream categories. In these categories better-for-you innovation is driving volume growth more than any other factor, the report notes.

    This is good news for manufacturers and retailers that have committed to getting children to eat better. After all, mainstream snack fare leaves a lot to be desired, in these players' opinion.

    "[Most] snacks on the market today exhibit very few health benefits and usually contain copious amounts of fat and high-fructose corn syrup," notes Robert Martin, v.p. of technology and operations at San Ramon, Calif.-based GoodBody, a manufacturer of nutrient-packed frozen treats. "Very few are protein-based or deliver any significant vitamin combinations to the consumer, and those that do possess these ingredients usually exhibit poor taste profiles."

    Taste rules

    Makers of nutritious snack foods believe they have the solutions to these problems. "Healthy snacks must do two things: deliver positive nutrition and taste good," says Martin. "With kids, we believe in a good balance of vitamins and minerals that assist young growing bodies, especially calcium and the B vitamins. [But] most of all, kids demand that healthy snacks taste good."

    "It's about making great-tasting food totally accessible, portable, and convenient for busy people and families," adds Donna Williams, director, sales and marketing at Seattle-based Sahale Snacks, a manufacturer of all-natural nut blends.

    One product custom-designed for children is Rokkits, a sports snack employing all-natural and organic ingredients. Just last month, the snack's manufacturer, Boulder, Colo.-based Rokkit, Inc., announced an agreement with UNFI West to make the item available throughout the western states, in addition to the Midwest, where it was already being distributed by UNFI Midwest.

    Rokkit has "several back-to-school promotions running in August and September with UNFI, Wild Oats, Whole Foods (Midwest), and King Soopers in Colorado," notes company spokeswoman Jessica Parsley, adding that the promotions would mainly consist of a "shelf special" discount of 15 percent. "We're looking to do additional demos, as well," she says.

    Another element of Rokkit's back-to-school outreach is participation in the Whole Foods Flavor Fest in Chicago on Aug. 26 to Aug. 27. "It's 'kid-focused," and will hopefully build brand awareness in the Midwest stores," observes Parsley, who adds that 10,000 attendees are expected at the event.

    Sahale's challenge in marketing to kids is that "our products have a subtle spice, which doesn't appeal to all children," notes Williams. "However, we've found the acceptance is much higher with teens and in urban areas." However, in developing one of its latest nut blends, Sing Buri, Sahale kept young consumers' preferences in mind, using "cashews, peanuts, and pineapples -- kid favorites" and creating a product that was only "very lightly spiced," she says. To support Sing Buri in the back-to-school period, Sahale has developed a shipper as a promotional vehicle. According to Williams, "The shippers, containing the five-ounce product, will be placed in all Wild Oats stores during August. They'll run a flier ad with a price discount for two weeks and maintain the feature price discount for the month."

    Says David Neuman, e.v.p. of global sales and marketing at Richmond, B.C.-based Nature's Path Foods, which produces a range of organic and/or natural items, "[A]ll the supernaturals, most of the grocery chains, and a few of the mass chains will be featuring our better sellers during" the August/September time frame that includes back-to-school and Organic Harvest Month. "Typically we'll promote off-shelf, with a hot retail," he adds. "[W]e also offer a wide range of shippers for impulse purchase."

    Darien, Conn.-based Bear Naked, a manufacturer of all-natural granolas, is now positioning itself as an anytime snack, particularly for kids. To that end, the company last year launched two of its granola varieties in two-ounce packages, which are available at such retailers as Target and Whole Foods. Bear Naked also offers a variety pack comprising 12 two-ounce bags in three varieties, which rolled out in Costco stores in February.

    "[These] progressive retailers...have embraced the [snack-sized SKUs] and are selling them with snacks, not cereal," notes Mike Joyce, Bear Naked's v.p. marketing. The company will promote the snacks in its back-to-school program as in-and-out items, and at presstime was actively courting more retailers to stock the products.

    Natural affinity

    With regard to supermarkets, natural food retailers have obviously been at the forefront of offering better-for-you snack foods. "Snacks need to hit our criteria, the same as any other item: no hydrogenated fats, no artificial ingredients, and we're eliminating items with high-fructose corn syrup," says Stephanie Steiner, a grocery merchandiser at Seattle-based natural food cooperative PCC Markets, which operates eight stores in Washington state's King County.

    When it comes to children specifically, the retailer has instituted "PCC Kid Picks," "a product-sampling program giving children the chance to try products and vote whether they like them," explains PCC public relations manager Diana Crane. In choosing samples for the program, which includes only items sold at the retailer's stores, "we try to select food products that follow the Seattle public schools' guidelines for healthy snacks," she says. Although the program runs year-round, "We will also promote our Kid Picks items around back-to-school, and increase the number of tests we do and school locations we visit," adds Crane.

    The results are clear: "We list approved products on our Web site and flag them in our stores -- and our shoppers tell us they specifically look for the tags," notes Crane. "Our vendors have taken notice, too, and want us to test their products so they can say they offer 'kid-tested and -approved' products."

    Other back-to-school promotions used are "ads, TPRs, [and] displays," says Steiner. "We continually target appropriate items according to seasonality, so...[w]e'll have manufacturers involved in promoting kid-appropriate items during August and September."

    As to strategies that that mainstream supermarket operators might employ to encourage children and their families to eat healthy snacks, such retailers "could be doing a lot more in the area of education/outreach and in conscientious product selection," says Crane.

    Further, she hopes that "the recent changes in what our schools are [offering, in terms of] vending/lunch programs and before-/after-school programs, will start bringing about changes at home -- and that manufacturers will respond to changing consumer demand."

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