11/07 Popeye aside, canned vegetables are in a squeeze

11/07 Popeye aside, canned vegetables are in a squeeze Generations of cartoon watchers believed that Popeye's spinach—and his impressive power—came from a can. Amazingly convenient when he needed it most, the can opened dutifully with only a squeeze of his hand.

Decades ago, cans were the way to package and distribute the best our nation's farms could produce. However, with today's nutritional insights and lighter-weight packaging methods, consumers today think differently and often reach for fresh, organic or frozen at the point of harvest vegetables for superior taste and health benefits.

No one, it seems, will come to save the day for canned vegetables. For as far back as data show, equivalized unit volume (16-ounce basis) has dropped—by 4.8 percent in 2004, 3.0 percent in 2005, 3.4 percent in 2006 and 3.4 percent in the 52 weeks ended October 6, 2007, according to Nielsen Strategic Planner figures for U.S. food, drug and mass merchandiser stores (excluding Wal-Mart).

Dollar sales of canned vegetables ended the latest period at $3.23 billion, up a bare 0.7 percent over the comparable 2006 period. By comparison, the category rang up $3.28 billion in 2003, before sliding by 4.3 percent in 2004, and recovering slightly by 0.8 percent in 2005, and another 1.4 percent in 2006.

A look at the Nielsen list of 45 canned vegetable segments showed only 10 with equivalized unit volume (EUV) gains in 2007. The biggest of these was remaining canned tomatoes, up 0.2 percent in EUV and 5.6 percent in dollars to $426.6 million. (It is easily the largest canned vegetable segment in dollars, topping green beans, which sold $355.7 million in the latest period.) Second among EUV gainers was remaining canned beans, up 2.4 percent in EUV and 6.0 percent in dollars to $111.8 million. Third was canned onions, up 7.5 percent in EUV and 14.5 percent in dollars to $89.1 million.

One of the nutritional slams on canned vegetables is the frequent presence of salt or sodium. It is notable, therefore, that canned vegetables packed with "low salt or sodium" have performed dramatically better than the category overall. Dollar sales of this segment have risen for three straight years—by 5.6 percent in 2005, 14.2 percent in 2006, and 16.6 percent in the latest 52 weeks to reach $41.4 million. Slightly larger at $46.6 million is the "no salt or sodium" segment, which was up a more modest 2.5 percent in 2005, 3.6 percent in 2006, and 2.9 percent in 2007. Larger still at $110.7 million is the "no salt or sodium added" segment, which gained 3.3 percent in 2005, 0.1 percent in 2006, and 2.6 percent in the latest period, Nielsen LabelTrends data show.

The proportion of canned vegetables sales occurring in brands versus controlled brands or generics has remained absolutely consistent the past four years, showed Nielsen Strategic Planner data. In both 2003 and 2007, branded share of the category's dollar sales was 69.7 percent; in the latest period, branded sales were $2.25 billion of the category's $3.2 billion total tally. By comparison, private label brands rang up a 30.3 percent share of sales at $980 million. Generic sales were slightly under three-quarters of a million dollars, the data showed.