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Inside the battle for your supermarket's shelves

"Today" food editor Phil Lempert visited America’s biggest food fair to check out the products fighting to get on your table.

Think the job of a food buyer for a supermarket chain sounds glamorous? All those invitations to tempting tastings?

You may want to think again. Last year there were more than 21,000 new products (or reformulations of existing ones) introduced into the marketplace. It was the food buyer’s job to sort out the less than 1500 that actually made it to the store.

To help them make their decisions, supermarket and gourmet store buyers head each year to Chicago to walk the miles of aisles in McCormick Place at the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) Convention and Fancy Food Show. Here’s where brands from tiny to titanic assemble to showcase their newest offerings.

The pressure on the brands is incredible. And the key is getting shelf space. Each week, the average family makes 2.0 visits to a supermarket and spends a total of $90, according to the FMI Trends 2004 survey. The amount spent per week ranges from an average of $59 for one person to $115 for larger households of five people. The overall number of products available in the median average size supermarket (now 44,000 square feet) hovers at around 22,000. But it may not be enough.

New supermarket product introductions last year topped 20,000, the highest in years. According to a just published Trade Practices Survey by ACNielsen, more than half of the retailers surveyed reported that they increased the amount of new products that they bought and introduced in 2003 over the previous year.

As store size remains relatively constant, retailers have to de-list products, or categories, that don’t perform well to make room for new innovations; adding further challenges to existing brands to keep up with consumer tastes and to evolve as their shoppers do, or are banished from the shelves.

A current example is how many food brands are now removing trans fats from their ingredient listing, far sooner that the 2006 Federal Labeling requirement to list the content of this fat. The conventional wisdom is that few consumers will knowingly want to purchase any product that contains this ingredient. Rather than having current users seek out new brands, most manufacturers are re-engineering their product recipes instead of introducing a “trans fat free” brand extension.

All this at a time when the costs of introducing new product introductions skyrocket. For a major brand the figure can exceed $10,000,000 just in development, packaging and introductory allowances given to retailers to get placement on their shelves – and that’s before any consumer advertising or coupons!

To get the inside track on some of  the newest and hottest products, we walked the aisles of the show to find some of the most delicious, indulgent, convenient and just plain innovative foods for Katie, Matt, Ann and Al to taste and give their thumbs up...or down.

  • Coke and Pepsi are both introducing new “mid-calorie” sodas. Coke’s C2 and Pepsi’s EDGE are scheduled to roll out late June to stores nationwide. These sodas are designed for those people who want fewer calories but the full taste of their favorites – with about half the calories and half the carbs. Both of these products contain less high fructose corn syrup, which is then supplemented with the no-calorie sweetener Splenda.
  • With sales of bottled water in the U.S., well, flat (and in some areas even declining), manufacturers are putting their bets on “enhanced waters,” the fastest-growing segment of all beverages – up 54% just this year. We want our water, but it appears that we also want it to taste of something(which studies show actually increases the amount of water we consume – especially while exercising). Propel, from the makers of Gatorade, are introducing tw0 new flavors: grape and tropical citrus.
  • Just Strawberries is a juice drink that has 60% less carbs than orange juice and only 80 calories in a 12 oz. serving. Made with Splenda, this drink has no added sugar and is found in the produce department.
  • Waterbabies are “personal size” watermelons that are very sweet and seedless – perfect for snacking and smaller families. Unlike other mini melons, the rind is not very thick and has a greater yield of the fruit.
  • Dreyer’s (Edy’s east of the Mississippi) is hoping to change the low fat ice cream world with its new “slow churned” Grand Light ice cream. Through a new manufacturing process, Dreyer’s was able to produce an ice cream that tastes very much like full fat ice creams with 50% less fat and 30% less calories. No fake fats or artificial sweeteners.
  • Hershey’s is launching the first “fortified” chocolate syrup in September with Calcium, Vitamin E, Biotin, Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid) and Zinc.
  • And while we are talking chocolate…M&M Mars is introducing M*Azing, a chocolate bar loaded with mini size and colored M&M’s  in two varieties: peanut butter and crunchy.
  • Breakfast will never be the same again with Mama Mary’s Pancake Sandwiches (sausage and sausage and egg varieties) that are microwavable and made with real maple syrup.
  • How about a Shrimp Burger? Omega Foods, one of the country’s leaders in salmon burgers is getting ready to ship their 98% Fat Free Shrimp Burgers. No fillers or preservatives, these burgers are made from 100% cold water shrimp.
  • For dinner, how about Bison & Lamb Sausage from Dakota Lamb? No hormones added and high in protein, these are a terrific alternative for those who love sausage.

Phil Lempert is Food Editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to or via the e-mail form below. For more new product information visit the "Today" show Web site each Wednesday for Phil’s New Product Hits & Misses. You can also visit his Web site at .