WATSONVILLE, Calif. — Packaged salads have only been around for 20 years or so, but that’s long enough for a generational change. It’s not your dad’s bagged salad anymore.
Young shoppers are driving purchases: 63% of those 24 and below — the highest rate of any age group — report buying packaged salad at least monthly, according to a survey by Spectra Perishables Consumer Profiles.
Romaine and iceberg salads remain popular, but diversity has become the rule. That’s reflected partly in the choice of leafy greens. Most Americans prefer spring mix and the like to iceberg, according to the International Food Information Council.
They have for a while. But as recent product additions by such companies as Apio, Dole Fresh Vegetables and Taylor Farms show, the category isn’t restricted to leafy greens. Other vegetables are becoming increasingly common in salad offerings.
Three new Dole Extra Veggie Salads are expected to hit retail shelves in early 2012, said Michelle Gonsalves, director of new products marketing.
The salads combine spring mix or spinach with grape tomatoes; snap peas; or radishes, carrots and red cabbage.
In September, Guadalupe, Calif.-based Apio added a third flavor, Chipotle, to its Eat Smart retail line of shredded-broccoli based salad kits. The others are Broccoli and Asian.
And in July, Salinas, Calif.-based Taylor Farms introduced three Chopped Salad kits: Asian, Garden Vegetable and Southwest. Chopped ingredients include broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery and green onions — along with cabbages or romaine.
Cut-vegetable or slaw-type products aren’t novelties. Mann Packing, for one, has sold blends for years.
It’s their growing popularity on restaurant menus that caught the eye of Taylor Farms. And Dole’s in-house studies showed 87% of consumers like crunchy vegetables with their leafy greens.
There’s a convenience factor — and not just for the shopper who buys leafy greens and vegetables in a single package.
“When we see weather challenges affecting the leafy greens market, we do feel an uptick in our salad orders, as retailers try to continue to supply their consumers,” said Cali Tanguay, director of marketing and technology at Apio. “Sometimes they’ll shift over to a hard-crop vegetable to meet those needs.”
Frankly, grower-shippers go where the numbers, opportunity and demand tell them to. The packaged salad category remained flat in 2011, up just 1.4% in the year ending Oct. 8, according to Nielsen U.S. Grocery.
So some are seeking out, and finding, niche opportunities.
Organics, for example, rose 11%, continuing a trend that’s been noteworthy through the slow economy of the past few years. Sales are up despite the price premium on organic.
“Conventional iceberg salads are not a money maker,” said John Burge, vice president of sales and marketing at Watsonville-based Classic Salads.
“The category stopped growing three or four years ago, and Dole and Fresh Express have more competition. They’re fighting for market share. Anytime there’s a fight for market share, price and promotion become important, and they tend to be cheaper,” he said.
Organic isn’t the only bright spot. Single-serve salad sales are up 17.8%.
Price still matters to consumers, said Tristan Kieva, director of marketing at Irwindale, Calif.-based Ready Pac Foods.
“Packaged salad has increased in volume per trip, but has declined in trips per buyer, with consumers waiting for deals to stock up,” Kieva said.
That’s still better than total produce, which is down in both trips and volume per buyer.
Among leafy greens, tender varieties — spring mix, baby spinach, arugula and the like — represent the largest segment of packaged salad offerings, with 28.4% of sales according to Nielsen U.S. Grocery. Chopped romaine salads account for 19.7% and iceberg for 18.2%.