Nowhere is the fiercely competitive battle among consumer-products companies more apparent than in the fight to obtain supermarket shelf space--the high stakes stage where shoppers' preferences ultimately decide an item's fate.
The contest has resulted in an avalanche of new food and household products that have taxed the analysts' ability to chart their rapid growth, besieged grocers with ever-expanding categories and presented consumers with cavernous food stores filled with a dizzying array of choices.
Fueling this bull market of innovation and imitation is the need for established firms to increase sales each year. These major corporate efforts are also joined by the presence of entrepreneurs who hope to provide Americans with that one essential item they may now be lacking.
"For the first four months of 1987, new product (introductions) are steaming ahead at a torrid 24% increase (over the corresponding period last year)," reports DFS-Dorland New Product News.
The monthly trade publication found that 3,152 different food, household or personal/beauty items made their debut between January and April--a record total, which exceeds the similar 1986 time period by more than 600. This type of expansive growth has gone unchecked for the past seven years.
"If a food manufacturer has only one winner (out of) 10, he's way ahead in the new product derby," said Martin Friedman, editor of New Product News. "Any company that succeeds only 10% of the time is doing a great job."
The minimal performance ratio is permissible, Friedman claims, because just one popular item can generate $15 million in sales every year for a decade or longer. This type of track record can easily offset the losses generated from nine failed products, which are normally pulled from store shelves during the test marketing phase anyway. (Such preliminary studies usually cost about $1 million each.)
In the past few years, appeals to health consciousness have certainly been a major theme for many of these introductions. However, it has become clear that there are limits to the public's desire for a risk-free diet, according to Friedman.
"There's no question that some nutritional benefits are 'fads' and others are 'permanents,' " he said. "In the fad category are sodium-reduced foods and caffeine-free beverages. While both continue to be important to many consumers, they have never reached the sales levels originally envisioned, except for the decaffeinated teas and coffees. The most certain permanent nutrition concern is low calorie."
A look at some the more noteworthy or offbeat items coming to market provides an indication of where the food industry's new product development is headed.
Entertaining Entrees--Proving that no processed food is exempt from an image upgrade is the Gorton Group's recent improvement of the lowly fish stick. The firm, based in Gloucester, Mass., is now out with a crunchy version of this frozen standard. The company claims that the eight-ounce, 12-stick package offers the first microwave-safe container for frozen fish that ensures a crunchy coating, while at the same time preserves the moist tender meat inside.
Convenience is the appeal of Holly Farms Poultry Industries Inc.'s latest entry: a ready-to-eat, fresh, roasted chicken. The prepackaged birds are sold from the refrigerated meat case alongside traditional poultry selections, but arrive at stores already cooked. They contain no preservatives and sit atop microwave-safe trays for optional reheating. In addition to its no-fuss, no-work attributes, the cooked, whole chicken is also a means for Holly Farms to cut into the sales of those rotisserie-baked birds now sold warm-off-the-rack at most supermarkets. The Wilkesboro, N.C., company spent nearly a decade of research developing its cooked chicken at a purported cost of several million dollars. The breakthrough, however, is likely to be quickly imitated by the large West Coast poultry firms that serve Southern California.
Delta Catfish Processors did not go quite as far as Holly Farms in making things simple for consumers. But the firm also has ease-of-preparation in mind with its glazed and seasoned catfish fillets. Once heated, the coating applied to the fish liquefies into a sauce--of sorts. Four different versions of the farm-raised fish are now on line: lemon-peppered, garlic-buttered, blackened catfish classics and Cajun. The fish can be broiled, microwaved or baked.
Convenient Cajun--Delta Catfish represents only a portion of the burgeoning industry capitalizing on the interest in Cajun and Creole cooking. There have been dozens of different products from potato chips to mayonnaise that have laid some claim to this cuisine.