Natural Foods Merchandiser

Home Chefs Spur High-End Cookware Sales

Prepared foods tempt tired shoppers at the deli case. Busy families scatter in a dozen directions at dinnertime. So who's cooking anymore? Despite the time crunch of the modern lifestyle, home-cooked meals are still served. In fact, home cooking has seen a recent resurgence, and home chefs want the right tools for the job. Whether their emphasis is on performance or decorative appeal, it seems amateur chefs are willing to spend big money on professional-quality cookware.

According to the Cookware Manufacturers Association based in Mountain Brook, Ala., wholesale figures for cookware sales in 1999 totaled $679 million. For the same year, cookware sold specifically in supermarkets totaled $23.4 million. The consumers driving sales in the specialty cookware industry are natural products customers. Most cookware manufacturers agree that may be because shoppers who choose higher quality, more expensive ingredients from specialty and natural foods stores are likely to choose higher quality, more expensive cookware to help perfect their recipes.

Televised cooking shows get some of the credit for the renewed interest in cooking and cookware. While educating consumers on cooking styles and techniques, these programs also hint at what cookware professional chefs prefer—typically high-end brands such as All-Clad, Le Creuset or Cuisinart. Retailers of specialty and natural foods are taking advantage of such sales opportunities, including Bristol Kitchens, a division of the southern California-based specialty food chain Bristol Farms.

Suzi Holland, Bristol Kitchens and Gift department manager at the Newport Beach store, believes television cooking shows have definitely influenced sales in her store. "[People who] watch cooking shows will come in and say, 'Oh, I was watching Martha Stewart the other day, and she was using this certain [piece of cookware], do you have it?' So that helps sales."

Le Creuset, with a cast-iron/porcelain design, and All-Clad, with its aluminum core, are her top-selling brands. "I think people like the idea of cast iron because it lasts forever and people like the design and bright colors [of Le Creuset]. Several chefs use All-Clad because it's lighter weight and easier to handle," she says.

Smart retailers agree that education and knowledgeable staff are important tools for moving high-end cookware. When customers come into Sur La Table, a 21-store specialty chain based in Seattle, and ask about specific differences between cookware brands, the staff is prepared and provides a hands-on experience. "One thing that is really important for us is to have the customers come into the store and pick up and hold and touch the cookware," says Susana Linse, the company's spokeswoman. "A really important factor when you're choosing your cookware is how it feels in your hand, how the handle feels, and what the weight of it is."

From cast-iron and copper to spun steel and aluminum, Sur La Table showcases the cream of the crop in cookware—DeMeyere from Belgium, Mauviel and LeCreuset from France, Look from Iceland, and domestic brands such as KitchenAid, Calphalon and All-Clad. Linse says all of its cookware is merchandised in store by vendor, and specific lines by the same vendor have separate displays. One of every piece of cookware available at the store is displayed for customers to handle.

Sur La Table also educates customers with in-store signs showcasing helpful tips on caring for cast iron and copper and featuring prices for individual pieces as well as entire sets. "We don't always push sets," Linse says. "We like to find out what people are cooking, what their needs are, what they like to look at and how it feels in their hand. We like to work with them and make sure they have the right pieces for their home without having to buy an entire set."

Manufacturers of professional-quality cookware are pleased with the increased interest from amateur cooks and say sales opportunities continue to expand. All-Clad's move into the specialty and natural foods market has been a smart choice, according to Catherine Fischer, vice president of sales. "[These stores] feel that having prime-quality food goes along with premium-end cookware," she says. "When you're cooking something more expensive, there's nothing worse than ruining it by cooking in something that doesn't spread heat evenly."

Fischer agrees that cooking programs have influenced sales, noting that All-Clad's reputation among professional chefs has translated into increased sales among home chefs. "People are watching these cooking shows morning, noon and night," Fischer says. "The TV Food Network is 24 hours; they see it on television, and they think they have to have it to make what they're making tonight.

Cuisinart, which is widely known for its food processor, also has four lines of cookware and sponsors numerous cooking shows, according to Mary Rodgers, senior marketing communications manager. "We don't have a huge grocery business, and that's most likely because of our high price point." But despite the cost, Rodgers says Cuisinart products are selling well in New York's Wegman's and other gourmet specialty shops.

Other manufacturers don't feel a high price point inhibits spontaneous sales. L'Equip's Model 221 Pulp Ejector Juicer found that successful cross-merchandising in natural foods stores can boost sales. Naturals chains Whole Foods and Wild Oats sell the Lemoyne, Pa.-based L'Equip's juicer right next to the fresh fruits and vegetables. A spur-of-the-moment purchasing decision might seem unlikely for a product with a suggested retail price of $249, but it happens. "Somebody in a health food store is shopping for their health, willing to spend money on their health and likely to be a higher-end client," says John Forry, vice president of sales and marketing.

The high price point of All-Clad cookware hasn't slowed sales at Bristol Kitchens. "I'm almost out of it," Holland says. All-Clad's Fischer says the line with a stainless-steel exterior, a stainless interior and aluminum core is the most popular. "People like things they can throw in the dishwasher," she says. "It's shiny and gorgeous, and it conducts heat well." The suggested retail price for a 10-piece set is $579 and a seven-piece set is $389. "Normally, they'll buy a set first, and then go back and buy additional pieces they want like a roast pan," Fischer says.

Whether you are considering kitchenware for the first time or adding more high-end products to an existing line, placement of the items in the store does make a difference. If you're wondering where you might squeeze a cookware display, you might not need as much space as you think. Pots and pans may move better when placed in a section close to foods associated with them. And although they need more space than a garlic press or whisk, displaying just one of each piece and keeping the rest back-stocked is a workable plan for retailers tight on space.

"You have an opportunity to get that customer right when they're thinking about the recipe they're making," says All-Clad's Fischer.

Small appliances and professional-quality cookware are new merchandising opportunities to take advantage of as the boundaries between gourmet and natural continue to blur and as more consumers are inspired to cook. Many home chefs want high quality and stylish equipment. After all, they're making an investment of time and money to cook healthy meals. Fischer says, "There's a huge potential with better grocery stores and [natural foods] stores to create a environment for healthy cooking with healthy cookware."

Catherine Gregory is food editor at Delicious Living!

Sur La Table's Best Sellers

Seattle-based Sur La Table is a specialty chain catering to cooks for more than 28 years. Its more than a dozen cookware brands from around the globe tantalize a range of cooks from amateur to professional. According to Susan Linse, the company's marketing manager, the following cookware pieces are ringing up the biggest sales at Sur La Table:

  1. Skillets
  2. Sauce pans
  3. Stock pots
  4. Dutch ovens
  5. Cast-iron camp ovens
  6. Woks
  7. Spun-steel crepe pans
  8. Reversible griddles
  9. Paella pans
  10. Insert steamers and pasta pots
  11. Cedar baking planks

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXII/number 8/p. 28, 30, 32

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