This isn't your mama's ranch dressing anymore. With new, internationally inspired flavors to complement old standbys, and new selling points like allergen-free ingredients, the natural and organic salad dressing category is growing in size and sales.
The shelf-stable dressing category has experienced 30 percent growth over the last six years, says Ken Erickson, director of premium taste with Tree of Life Inc., in St. Augustine, Fla. And with some helpful merchandising, dressings can help grow your produce sales, even through the lean winter months.
Healthy means natural, organic
"Health is a driving reason behind increased salad dressing purchases as consumers try to add more vegetables and leafy greens into their diets," says Aimee Sands, public relations manager for Homegrown Naturals Inc., makers of Annie's Naturals salad dressings of Napa Valley, Calif. The same health-conscious crowd that values fresh vegetables is driving the increase in organic and natural salad dressing flavors.
In response, Annie's recently introduced new organic versions of its top-selling dressings. "Consumers are looking for natural and organic options. The growth of mainstream brands is slowing while the natural and specialty category is really fueling all of the growth in both the grocery and natural channels," Sands says. Companies like Spectrum Naturals of Petaluma, Calif., and OrganicVille Foods of Emeryville, Calif., have also seen sales of their organic dressings flow.
When it comes to flavor, today's customer has a much more sophisticated palate than the customer of yesteryear. While ranch is still the top-selling dressing, Erickson says, naturals customers are looking for more variety. "On average, consumers keep at least three bottles of dressing on hand at any given time," he says.
Rachel Kruse, president of OrganicVille Foods, says her best sellers are classics and traditional dressings with a little twist, like the company's Olive Oil & Balsamic, Sundried Tomato & Garlic, Herbs De Provence and Orange Cranberry. But she says its other more exotic flavors are selling very well, too, proving that they are not "too unique" for the average customer. For example, Kruse noticed that pomegranate products were hot in naturals stores and experimented with a pomegranate dressing, which has met with success.
Other brands, like Drew's All Natural, based in Greenfield, Mass., and Seeds of Change, based in Gila, N.M., have also introduced new flavors to entertain foodie salad eaters. Offerings include Shiitake Ginger, Kalamata Olive & Caper, Thai Sesame Lime and Greek Feta Vinaigrette. Maple Grove Farms of Johnsbury, Vt., has recently launched a line of all-natural dressings including Strawberry Balsamic Maple Fig.
As Kruse was developing her line of organic dressings, she wanted to avoid certain ingredients that were common in mainstream products. That focus opened her line to a whole new market: salad eaters with allergies and food sensitivities. As a lifetime vegetarian and self-proclaimed prolific salad eater, Kruse says, "Salad is something everyone should be able to eat." So she experimented with new formulations for gluten- and dairy-free dressings. Though it took several tries, the company even created a yet-to-be-released vegan, gluten-free ranch dressing. And all OrvanicVille dressings substitute agave nectar for sugar and soy, olive and sesame oils for canola.
Annie's has also recently released gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free and vegan dressings. In fact, according to Mintel's Global New Product Database, the top growing claims are low-, no- and reduced-sugar and gluten-free.
With all the diversity of flavors in the natural and organic salad category, a little sampling can help customers have confidence when buying a whole bottle of a brand-new flavor. Erickson says the produce section is a good place for salad dressing demos. A tray of cut veggies and samples of new flavors that customers might be curious but cautious about can lead to sales of dressings and veggies.
Using dressings in your store's deli can also pique customers' interest in new flavors, whether it's in an actual green salad or used in other dishes. Annie's offers foodservice-sized dressings for just such use.
Kruse also suggests marketing dressings as marinades for chicken, beef and tofu. Because many marinades are not gluten-free, the natural salad dressing category can step in for customers looking for exciting flavors for center-of-the-plate choices.
Marketing the mix-ins
With a display of diverse, healthy dressings and a selection of ready-to-eat greens, a salad section might look ripe for sales. But a little extra cross-merchandising can add value to your salad eaters' shopping carts and adventure to their meals.
Nuts and croutons are natural complements to most salads, but Kruse suggests going so far as to matching fixings' flavors with specific dressings, like grouping fresh oranges and sliced almonds next to the Orange Cranberry dressing.
Taking a good look into your crunchy snacks section can turn up some unusual and imaginative salad toppers, like tortilla strips, plantain chips and crunchy Asian noodles. And a thoughtful foray into the fruit section can result in juicy salad additions like apples, strawberries and grapes or dried cranberries and raisins. Though they require refrigeration, creative cheese additions can also spice up a salad display. A little artistic arrangement applied to the growing natural salad dressing category can result in strong salad sales through all four seasons.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 1/p. 40, 44