HEAT'S ON TO SALVAGE POPCORN MARKET GAINS

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Someone took the pop out of popcorn.

Despite double-digit bursts through the last decade, microwave popcorn sales are flat. And ready-to-eat popcorn brands like Smartfood and Cape Cod, snapped up by Frito-Lay and Eagle Snacks for growth potential, aren't growing.

During one five-year period, 1982-87, popcorn sales doubled. But during the most recent year, sales of unpopped popcorn rose a measley 1.8%, while sales of the ready-to-eat bagged snacks fell 11%.

"It's a maturing market," said Tom Elsen, PRdirector for American Pop Corn Co., marketer of Jolly Time. "With the advent of microwave popcorn in the '80s, we brought a whole lot of new consumers into the category. And we've peaked there."

There's a kernel of truth there; accounting for as much as 75% of category sales, microwave popcorns have covered the bases with flavored corns, single-size packages, family packs, reduced-fat items.

Hunt-Wesson's Orville Redenbacher's credits variety for its 4.1% sales increase last year. "Sales have leveled off, but we don't think consumers will turn away from popcorn," a spokeswoman said.

But they clearly have turned away from the bagged ready-to-eat popcorns like Smartfood, now struggling and lacking marketing support. Hunt-Wesson never got its Orville Redenbacher's popped popcorn out of test market; some suggest consumers don't see bagged popcorn as good value.

Popcorn marketers also may be struggling in part because pretzel makers have co-opted the snack market's low-fat niche.

In fact, though General Mills is promoting its new Pop-Secret Pop Chips, made with ground popcorn, as healthier than potato chips, a spokeswoman said the trend in the microwave business is indulgence. Hunt-Wesson has had success with its Orville Redenbudder's line launched last year, and now General Mills is promoting new Pop-Secret Buttery Burst as having "half the fat of movie theater popcorn."

That may rankle Michael Jacobson, executive director of Center for Science in the Public Interest, whose April study of the high fat content in movie-theater popcorn put popcorn in a new light. The healthy-eating activist said the range of fat content in supermarket popcorns is wide; he recommends air popping.

But he's still a fan. "Plain popcorn," he said, "is just terrific."

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