Editor's Plate: Care Where Your Products Are Sold

Think hard about whether your creation belongs in a hardware supercenter or a dollar store.

Not too long ago, my hometown paper, the Chicago Tribune, wouldn't even accept  advertisements for its front page. Well, that was before a fire sale and bankruptcy filing which, I'm happy to say, the Trib has climbed out of. But at the bottom of the front page of several Sunday editions in a row now has been an advertisement for Target, which I think is a national mass merchandiser familiar to most of you. The ad was not for consumer electronics, towels or assemble-it-yourself furniture, but groceries.

Further back in that Sunday paper, in the bag full of individual store flyers, was one for Menard's, a Midwest chain of home improvement stores. On the back cover of its insert, in between the Fiberglass insulation rolls and leaf rakes, was a sale item for Hormel Compleats shelf-stable microwave meals. And a 30-bar pack of Kudos, Mars' granola bars. And Fisher peanuts.

During Christmas shopping season, I had the misfortune of visiting a Toys R Us store, looking for the obvious. What I found was not so obvious: more floor space devoted to food products.

By now, most of you – but probably not all of you – are hip to the idea that there are a lot of groceries being sold outside the grocery store format. A year or so back, I believe, Wal-Mart became the country's leading grocery retailer. In addition to top-branded products, the aforementioned Target has created some interesting store-brand products under its Archer Farms brand. What Trader Joe's is to the exotic high end, Aldi is to the mundane low end, but both exert influence on processors' product development efforts in order to meet their unique missions and niches.

And we've written in the past about the dollar store phenomenon (and that outlet's growing affinity for foods) and Walgreen's and convenience stores.

Sorry, probably not a lot of that is news to most of you.

And a lot of it's good. If this is the way America now shops, you'd be fools to ignore the trend. Don't stop thinking of ways to make your product accessible.

But I guess seeing Hormel Compleats in the hardware store made me concerned, and that's because I'm so fond of the product and the technology that created it. I worry that placement, at least, was less the result of a carefully strategized outreach of grocery products, many of them branded, in growing new formats than the result of desperation from two years of recession.

I'm not sure what message you attach to your high-end brands by selling them in Menard's, where mainline products like drywall and two-by-fours don't have brands. Similarly, and across the strip mall, if you really want your Hunt's ketchup to be thought of as a close second to Heinz, I'm not sure it should be a regular staple at the dollar store.

All that lecturing is not meant to excuse me-too products. If Hunt's cannot present a point of difference over Frank's ketchup, then it belongs in a dollar store. Hormel's Compleats are too innovative to be in my local hardware store. Kudos too.

We've been through two crazy years that have taken a toll on even some of the biggest food & beverage companies. Some former top companies are not around, or at least are no longer independent. But, believe it or not, the recession is over. It's time to move the product development lever from safe line extensions and $1 package sizes back to truly novel innovations.

It's time for food & beverage industry's leaders to resume acting like leaders, to churn out truly innovative products and to market them in places that celebrate that innovation.

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