STOCK BATTLE ON SHELF

Wednesday, 30 September, 2009

As winter approaches, we feel like having a warm and comforting soup. There is something nostalgic about it… we remember the soup that Grandma served us in cold winter when we were sick. Although not yet scientifically proven, many people are convinced that eating chicken soup really helps relieving colds and the flu.

According to archeologists, soup can be considered the first gastronomic dish human beings made. Though it is not completely clear who first came up with the soup concept, it seems the Cro-Magnon people did. The Paleolithic engravings of Les Eyzes-de-Tayac-Sireuil, in Aquitaine (France) would support this, together with the ‘hot stone’ theory: the Cro-Magnon would dig a suitable hole or find one, and fill it with water; they would build a fire close by and heat stones in it; then, with bones or sticks, they would transfer the stones to the water until it boils, simmering meat, fish and vegetables to it by adding stones every few minutes.

The success of a soup is in the stock: if flavorless, the rest of the soup will deflate. Thus, cooking a good chicken soup requires preparing a proper stock first by simmering chicken, vegetables, herbs and spices in water.

Today, we can either spend an hour preparing a tasty homemade stock at home, or we can buy a convenient carton pack of ready-made liquid stock available at the supermarket.

Since Gallina Blanca launched the first packed liquid stock in Spain in 1999, the market share of the packed stocks segment has increased considerably, reaching the current average penetration of 20% in Spanish homes. In Spain, the consumption of stocks (both homemade and packed) has a strong seasonal component, reaching its maximum during the colder period of the year, from October to March, and its minimum in July and August. According to the leading brands, maximum penetration can reach 35% of Spanish homes. With such a market share the business growth is high and Gallina Blanca plans to invest 8 million € in a production plant in Cáceres to produce packed liquid stocks.

Several competitors have appeared during the last 10 years: according to Nielsen (2008), Gallina Blanca has a 58% market share of liquid stocks, Aneto a 7% and Knorr a 7%, while 28% is dominated by private labels. Such competition has lead to the creation of new liquid stock variants, with new flavours, formulas, packs and concepts. So we can find the basic stocks of chicken, meat, vegetables or fish and chicken/meat with vegetables; there are also mild chicken stocks or stronger flavours of ham; we can find ‘countryside’ stocks and traditional regional recipes. There are concepts targeting special consumer needs, such as ‘low salt’, ecological and ‘with soya’. Finally, there are ready made stocks to prepare paella.

Stock is a basic dish in Spain and the packed liquid stocks have a good acceptance among consumers. A common characteristic of product users is not having time, or not willing to spend time to prepare a stock. Target segmentation indicates that they live in urban environment; they are young, adults living in individual homes or young couples without children. The strongest point of this product is convenience: users can save a step on the cooking process and they can store it on the fridge next to the milk pack. Space is another important factor, since the 4 L of homemade stock leftovers are not consumed on the day and have to be kept on the fridge. Additionally, consumers can buy all packs they wish and with all flavours they like: they just need a corner at home to store them for consumption whenever they want.

This category is expected to keep growing, and producers will face several challenges. One of them is that consumers loyal to packed liquid stocks are not necessarily loyal to brands. Another challenge is the difficulty to penetrate the homes of the non users or sporadic users. Homes where the person responsible for shopping and cooking tend to reject the product because they are not willing to give up enjoying the quality of a homemade stock. Additionally, packed liquid stocks are considered ‘chemical’, even though all packs state that they are ‘home made’ and ‘natural’, with plenty of references to ‘Grandmother’ and ‘Countryside’. Another challenge is to create value trough innovation of flavours and concepts, without going too far from what consumers consider ‘a good stock’.

A lot of users of these products are worried about their high salt contentsand their negative consequences to health. Besides, using a liquid packed stock as a substitute of a homemade stock can result on final dishes unacceptably salty due to their further concentration after cooking, for example, a soup. Interestingly, because of that, many consumers actually recommend diluting the packed stock with water, thus treating it as a ‘concentrated stock’ which, after dilution, is like a ‘true’ homemade stock, precisely due to its lower salt contents.

Open-Senses analysed the quality of 16 liquid chicken stocks, including the leader brands, the main private labels and a homemade one. Prices range from 0.8 to 3.3 €/L, with average 1.5 €/L. Main conclusions are the following:

Homemade chicken stock is easily identified because it is ‘natural’ and it has lower salt contents. This is the product that provides the best quality with the lowest price.

‘Naturalness’ is basically associated to the complexity of natural vegetables and the authenticity of chicken flavors.

Price and qualityare not clearly correlated: while some good quality samples have average prices, some of the middle prices can have low perceived quality. The worst perceived quality one is not the cheapest one. Some of the private label samples have an interesting good quality level and others have bad quality.

Positive flavors are linked to the identification of ‘natural-chicken’ flavors. Also ‘chicken-liver-like’ and ‘roasted-chicken-like’ flavors. Vegetable notes bring richness and complexity: onion, carrot, celery and potato. One of the samples had an interesting pepper note on top. Additionally, ham-like fatty flavors enrich some of the samples, and others have some ‘mushroom-like’ notes.

•Identified off flavors are artificial, ‘chicken-stock-cube-like-flavors, ‘rancid-fat-ham-like ‘or ‘boiled-toasted bread-like’. One of the samples had a very nasty ‘uneatable-chicken-like’ off-flavor that was described as ‘horrible’. Another sample had a bizarre ‘canned-pineapple’ note, probably a production contamination.

•The average salt level was moderate-high, rated 6 in a 10 point scale, while homemade stock had a much lower salt level, rated 3. The ‘low salt’ chicken stock had indeed the lowest perceived salt rate. 2 samples were considered too salty and linked to lower quality.

•Average samples had a pale yellow color, similar to the home made stock. One sample had an orange color probably for differentiation.A sample had a surprising grey tone that was associated to bad quality.

Regarding sight, most samples where homogeneous and a bit opaque, but some samples were a bit lumpy or had some dregs or fat drops on top. Two samples had a nasty layer of white particles, which was considered detrimental to perceived quality.

Texture: two samples were perceived as slightly more dense, creamy and opaque, with a bit more body than the rest. In both cases this was considered positive to quality perception, although the home made product did not have this attribute.

Overall, we see room for improvement on quality and there are opportunities for sensory innovation of packed liquid stocks. Producers should explore flavor and concept differentiation, a more ‘natural’ sensory perception, a more ‘premium-like’ taste and solving the issue of the high salt contents without losing taste and acceptance.

At Open-Senses we are passionate about sensory innovation. If you share this passion, you can contact us at info@open-senses.com.

Information Sources:

·Base de datos de consumo en hogares, Ministerio de Medio Ambiente y Medio Rural y Marino (MARM).

·Expansión, 30-07-2009

·Nielsen,http://www.nielsen.com.

·Own research: expert panel test by consensus, qualitative consumer interviews and several consumer blogs about foods.

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