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Consumer analyst: Sugar industry needs new products, promotion, and push for exercise

COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho — The sugar industry needs to think about new products, promote sugar on the Internet and think about urging consumers to exercise, a top consumer analyst said here last week at the American Sugar Alliance International Sweetener Symposium.

With many food categories stagnant, the sugar industry needs to think about “riding the strength” of growing categories and suggest the use of sugar in fresh fruit for special desserts or canning, meats requiring sugar as rub or in sauce, and tea and coffee beverages, said Todd Hale, the senior vice president for consumer and shopper insights at the Nielsen Company, based in Cherry Hill, N.J.

“Premium salt is doing well, “ Hale said, asking “Could there be premium sugar?”

There is a “real push toward fresh fruit,” he added, asking “How could sugar be a part of that?”

Sugar-containing food for bird feeders is another possibility, he said.

“What are you doing online?,” he asked, adding that he had been impressed by a recent Imperial sugar campaign urging consumers to “bake for the soldiers” and send the baked goods overseas, and noted also that Imperial is tapping into the Hispanic market by offering recipes in Spanish. “You need to spend 65 percent of your time thinking about multiculturalism,” he said.

Hale also said he was impressed by a Domino campaign pointing out that a spoonful of sugar has only 15 calories.

He also noted that more and more food purveyors are stressing exercise. McDonald’s has started promoting lower calorie meals, he said, but is also urging consumers to exercise, while Walgreen’s has developed a program of rewards for walking.

Hale also suggested sugar growers think about whether they are doing enough promotion with celebrity chefs.

One competitive threat, he noted, is products with labels reading “no sugar added.” And the movement questioning processed foods is an issue on which the industry needs to be proactive, he said.

In general comments on food industry trends, Hale said:
  • Consumers are value-conscious in the recession, but “Value is not just about price — it’s about the balance between price and benefits.” Greek yogurt is doing better than regular yogurt, premium chocolate better than regular chocolate and “healthy” pasta better than regular pasta.
  • Consumers are polarized, with top- and lower-end stores doing well and middle income stores including Walmart experiencing problems. Consumers are showing a preference for smaller stores and Walmart is opening neighborhood markets. The Kroger and Wegman chains are doing well.
  • Store peripheries selling prepared foods are doing well, but have higher labor costs.
  • Cheaper, private label brands took off in the beginning of the recession, but have not continued their growth because stores have not promoted them.
  • Online food purchasing is becoming more important, and Walmart is worried more about Amazon than about any other competitive retailer.
  • Future retail channels are e-commerce, club stores, dollar stores, supercenters, pet and drug stores.
  • Alcoholic bevearges are doing well. “We are drinking like there is no tomorrow.”
  • Bottled water and ice have done well in the heat wave this summer.
  • People are divided between “eating but not cooking” and “being engaged in food and cooking.”
  • Snacking and eating more often are growing trends.
  • Indulgence is still working as a marketing tool, but “portion control comes into the equation.”