Cans Are Hot!

Recognizing recession-weary consumers are buying more shelf stable products, Del Monte, General Mills, Kraft and others are focusing their marketing and R&D efforts on the formerly unsexy center of the supermarket.

The move is notable because, for the past few years, most of Big Food’s marketing focus has been on the outer aisles while the center store—the middle aisles which hold everything from kidney beans to vanilla pudding to marshmallows—got little attention.

“Center store is back,” said Tom Vierhile, a research director who tracks new products at Datamonitor in New York. “People got away from it in the first place because it lacked the pizzazz and sex appeal” that’s present in categories such as the frozen and fresh produce units, he said.

That’s because retailers, for some time now, have used those outer sections as a branding tool, often investing marketing muscle behind seafood, produce and deli units to create a distinct, supermarket experience.

Food makers, too, followed suit, with new products like Ore-Ida Steam ‘N Mash potatoes and ConAgra’s Healthy Choice Café Steamers winning key shelf space in frozen. But the recession and a back-to-basics focus by consumers is finally giving center store a chance to shine, industry experts say.

“I think what we’re going to see now is, because more people are discovering or re-discovering the center store, these companies are now saying, ‘This is the time to advertise. We are going to innovate,’” said Phil Lempert, the self-proclaimed “Supermarket Guru.”

Among marketers shifting their focus to the center:

• Del Monte. The pet and consumer foods maker recently began advertising its canned fruits and vegetables line for the first time in 10 years. Called “Stretch Your Dollar,” the $15 million campaign, via Smith Brothers Agency in Pittsburgh, aims to persuade shoppers to buy canned over fresh or frozen products.

The economic downturn has caused Del Monte to up its ad spend and “develop new plans that, frankly, the company hasn’t thought about in years to drive traffic and growth into center store categories,” said CMO Bill Pearce.

Del Monte, which is spending 30 percent more on marketing in its next fiscal year, said a high percentage of new products will target center store. (The company, which makes Contadina and College Inn, already is a major  player in this category.)

• Kraft  is building distribution for its new Velveeta Shells & Cheese Cups. The new cups appeal to busy adults who crave its boxed dinners in more convenient forms, said Kraft rep Joyce Hodel. The company is running “portfolio” print ads for its dinner products for the first time this month. (One poster pairs Kraft Macaroni & Cheese with Velveeta Shells & Cheese and Deluxe Macaroni & Cheese dinners.)

• General Mills, similarly, introduced Macaroni Grill, a more upscale version of Hamburger Helper that contributed to a 5 percent increase in meal sales for the latest quarter, the company said.

While marketers have slowed new product pipelines, shelf stable is one area they’re still heavily invested in, data from market research firm Mintel suggests. In the second quarter of 2009 so far, 284 of 376 new product launches came from center store. By contrast, there were only 46 new chilled and frozen introductions during that same period.

Said Krista Faron, a senior analyst with Mintel: “That’s just not something we saw as much of in the past.”