Back to school

With back to school season (or BTS) in full swing, parents are focused on their kids’ health and environment.

Canadians have gone gaga for green. Whether it’s “going green” by being eco-responsible or “eating green” by consuming nutritious foods, the hot-button trends this summer in the back-to-school (BTS) category are keeping kids’ food, and the environment, healthy. “Parents are more educated about healthy food now than ever,” says Theresa Albert, nutritionist and host of Food Network cooking show Just One Bite. “They want to know what’s in the food and they want real food.”

With headlines screaming of child obesity and diabetes, parents are scrutinizing labels for nutritional values and comparing cholesterol, sodium, fat and sugar contents. This is a huge step forward, says Brad Brewer, assistant store manager at Colemans Garden Market in Corner Brook, N.L. “When manufacturers first started putting nutritional facts on packaging, most people didn’t have the slightest idea how to read them or what they meant.”

Now that they do, nutrition is the top concern. That’s reflected in the nosedive sales that sugary cereals have taken at Stong’s Market over the last two years, says Mike Bayer, assistant manager at the Vancouver grocer. They’ve dropped by about 30%. The same thing is happening in the store’s drink category: sugary drink sales have decreased 20% to 30%. They’ve been replaced with an increase of the same amount split between water–including flavoured and vitamin water–and real juice.

How do you pronounce diglycerides?

Parents’ hunger for wholesome ingredients was echoed in a November 2009 TNS Canadian Facts survey for McCain Foods Canada. It showed that 85% of Canadians look for prepared foods that are made with “real” ingredients that they recognize. “If I can’t hand a package to a child and have them pronounce every word on the label, I can’t ask them to eat it,” says Albert. McCain has reformulated the recipes of more than 70 of its pizza and potato products. For example, mono and diglycerides have been removed from McCain Pizza Pockets and flaxseed has been added.

PepsiCo Canada’s Quaker brand has also changed a sizeable part of its portfolio with an eye to pumping up the “good-for-you” factor. Its Oatmeal To Go bars have been reformulated to increase the fibre content to four grams; yogurt bars have been altered so they now contain 10% of the recommended daily amount of calcium; and Quaker has introduced its Fibre & Omega-3 bars, which hold five grams of fibre and 300mg of omega-3s per bar. These new offerings are helping to build sales in Quaker’s granola bar category, says Kathryn Matheson, vice-president of marketing at Quaker, PepsiCo Canada. “The back-to-school time frame accounts for approximately 20% of our sales throughout the year.”

It all comes back to parents wanting food they can feel good about serving their family. Calla Farn, vice-president of corporate affairs at McCain Foods Canada, suggests pairing a Pizza Pocket with a small bag of fruit or vegetables for a fast, nutritious snack. Duda Farm Fresh Foods recently released such a product–a bundle of four single-serving, 1.6-ounce bags of celery sticks–under its Dandy brand. “We’re seeing that people are looking for single-serve items that are quick and easy, but still healthy, fresh and flavourful,” says Bill Munger, director of fresh-cut sales at Duda.

It’s no wonder, then, that parents are aiming their carts toward the produce section. As Dan Stezenko, store manager at one of the Quality Market locations in Thunder Bay, Ont., says, “We talk to parents and they say ‘I’m trying to feed my kids better so I’m sending them to school with grapes and bananas.’ And the kids’ lunch bags reflect that.”

What’s being reflected on store shelves shows the other major BTS trend: the popularity of organic and natural products. At Donald’s Market locations in Vancouver, general manager Gary Joe has boosted his shelf allotment for such products to roughly 60%, from 35% in 2007. Also revealing is that from 2008 to 2009, sales of organic granola bars and cereal picked up by at least 15% in his stores. Joe predicts that organic bar and snack sales could increase by an additional 5% this coming BTS season over last year.

Does all this wholesome eating mean candy and chips will disappear from lunch pails? It’s more a question of balance, says Ken Wong, associate professor in the School of Business at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. “Even if parents throw in potato chips or the odd small chocolate bar, that’s not going to break the nutrition bank.” Companies such as Ferrero Canada, which makes Kinder Chocolate bars, realize that. Kinder Chocolate offers kid-friendly portion sizes–such as 21-gram singles and 12.5-gram minis–as an occasional treat, says Mark Wakefield, vice-president of marketing at Ferrero.

When it comes to building awareness about the environment, schools across Canada are stepping up. Many have implemented “litterless lunch” days and the trickle-down effect has hit grocery shelves and BTS sales. In his Quality Market location, Stezenko has doubled the shelf allocation for reusable containers compared to last year. Originally devoting a four-food wide section of three shelves, it’s now eight-feet wide. Stezenko estimates he’s seen a 20% increase in the sale of resealable containers and a 30% to 40% drop in products that parents view as unhealthy or use a lot of packaging.

With all this focus on nutrition and the environment, where does taste fit in to filling those lunch pails? Wong predicts grocers will see a rise in products that offer the coveted mix of convenience and nutrition (to please parents) and taste (for the kids). As Bayer puts it, “You can make a very healthy granola bar with no fat and no sugar, but if it doesn’t taste good no one’s going to buy it.” Wong agrees, adding an insight from his own experience as a father of four: “At some point, you stop fighting the battle. When your kid keeps bringing the same stuff home every day uneaten, eventually you stop trying that and try something else.”

5 Merchandising Tips:

1. Think inside the box

Get shoppers thinking about back to school in August by offering lunch boxes at a sharp discount in your weekly flyer. They won’t likely make a profit, but they will attract attention to your BTS section so customers will remember it’s there when school starts.

2. Little recipes = big traffic

Provide parents with mini recipe cards with ideas for kids’ lunches. “I find it helpful as a consumer if I can pick up a recipe card and say, ‘Oh yeah, I can buy this and do that with it’ and I don’t have to look up a recipe, which is a pain in the neck,’” says Wendy Evans, founder of Evans and Company Consultants in Toronto.

3. Be a good neighbour

Support local sports clubs and school groups. It could be a girls’ soccer team or a healthy breakfast program. Doing giveaways with reputable organizations and promoting wholesome values shows you’re interested in helping kids. “Anything you do in the community is going to pay back,” says Evans.

4. Hit the TV trail

Hire a PR person or nutritionist to do a TV appearance on your behalf about how to create a school lunch that’s tasty and easy to make. In smaller communities, local cable morning programs are often on the lookout for such guests, notes Maureen Atkinson of retail consultancy J. C. Williams Group.

5. Stock up!

Stong’s Market assistant manager Mike Bayer loads up on cereal before putting out his BTS display the Labour Day long weekend. “Compared to our summer months, that week our business goes up over 20%.” If you’re not fully stocked, there could be problems. “The first few years I worked here, I’d come in Tuesday morning after Labour Day and the whole cereal section would be empty,” says Bayer.

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