Knowing that time is at premium for new parents, savvy grocers and manufacturers are addressing convenience in a major way. To be sure, parents are increasingly relying on the ease and increasing sophistication of supermarkets’ dedicated sections as a compelling one-stop shopping opportunity for all things baby. Meanwhile, leading category manufacturers are playing a starring role in retailers’ efforts to expand their baby food offerings with new and enhanced products that blend form and function with greater convenience and portable packaging that’s ideally suited for easy transport and consumption.
“We merchandise diapers, wipes, food, formula, baby/bath/body HBC, and infant- and toddler-feeding accessories adjacent to each other for an easier shopping experience,” says Maria Brous, director of media and public relations at Lakeland, Florida-based Publix Super Markets. “Baby category sales continue to improve year over year as we continue to improve product mix and selection.”
Convenience isn’t the only consideration, however. “Moms are looking for quality at a value, and typically in the form of a brand they trust,” notes Eric Barnes, spokesman for Jacksonville, Florida-based Winn-Dixie, which at presstime was merging with Mauldin, S.C.-based Bi-Lo. In light of the important role the overall baby category plays, Barnes says, Winn-Dixie plans “to integrate more products to provide solutions for Mom in the future.”
Despite these obvious successes, the baby category in general, and baby food in particular, has experienced serious hurdles of late.
“Since the economic recession began, the U.S. birth rate has been down about 7 percent,” explains Evan Eckman, chief marketing officer of Hero Group-North America, the U.S. arm of the Lenzburg, Switzerland-based company that manufactures Beech-Nut baby food products in Amsterdam, New York “This has had a significant impact on the infant care categories in terms of volume growth,” Eckman says, noting that Beech-Nut has in turn focused heavily on “meaningful product innovations to stimulate more growth in the baby food categories.”
In 2011, Eckman continues, “We introduced about 40 new products across our infant and toddler portfolios. Beech-Nut’s focus is on meeting the unmet needs of moms with value-added product offerings that grow the category.”
Among those new offerings are Textures, WIC-eligible fruits and vegetables in 4-ounce jars to further support the oral development of babies 8 months and older before they transition to table food, and eight varieties of 100 percent natural Fruities On-the-Go, which provide a full serving of fruit.
“Fruit and vegetable puree pouches are a great way for moms to provide a healthy snack for their children. Toddlers and preschoolers love them because of the Disney characters [and] they’re fun to eat — but ultimately, they just taste great,” Eckman says, adding that while the products have been in national distribution for just a few months, they’re off to a strong start with anticipated future strong forward momentum.
Eckman says Beech-Nut is equally energized about related merchandising opportunities: “Consistently evident is that the ‘vertical brand block’ on shelf grows the category,” helping moms shop the shelf and thereby translating into higher purchases per occasion. “Vertical brand blocks also help retailers stock the shelves faster and correctly,” he notes. “This optimizes labor resources and helps keep items in stock.”
Gerber, the iconic Fremont, Michigan-based baby food maker and division of Swiss company Nestlé, is also addressing convenience with Graduates Grabbers Squeezable Fruit and Fruit & Veggies, which was developed in response to research showing that many toddlers aren’t consuming enough fruit and vegetables. The 100 percent natural snacks provide two servings of fruit or vegetables per pouch and are an excellent source of antioxidant vitamins C and E, as well as encouraging independent eating skills by being easy for toddlers to hold.
Smaller companies are taking advantage of the need for convenience as well. Take the case of Baby Gourmet, an Edmonton, Alberta-based organic baby food company currently in the process of launching in the United States, which aims to make its green-packaged protein meals and fruit and veggie purees stand out from the crowd. “It makes a very healthy, convenient snack,” asserts Jennifer Broe, founder and president of Baby Gourmet, of the fruit and veggie puree line, which includes a variety of surprisingly sophisticated blends.
“The most critical promotion at retail has been strong in-section merchandising with easy-to-find, prominent off-shelf programs including PDQs, four-ways, end caps and sidekicks,” says Broe. “Also, some retailers have put up permanent displays. Moms are busy and often distracted by their children when they are in the baby aisle, [so] we knew it was critical that we made sure Baby Gourmet was easy to spot. We know it is successful based on sales that are exceeding our forecasts — and we can easily see the impact of the ‘sea of green.’”
Interestingly, despite the trend toward all-inclusive baby aisles noted above, Broe believes that separate sections work better. “We know moms are going to the baby aisle as a destination, and being in-section is critical,” she explains. “We are not trying to change moms’ shopping behavior; we are trying to align with it.”