There may be a silver lining to lower cheese prices, at least in the robust shredded cheese category. The latest figures from Information Resources Inc. indicate that quarterly sales of shredded natural cheese are not growing like they once were, in terms of dollar sales. But unit growth has shown more staying power. Dollar sales grew rapidly throughout 2001 and reached double digits by the last quarter of that year, and the first quarter of 2002. But then what happened? In the most recent three periods reported, dollar sales have gone from nearly 7% to just under 1% growth. But now look at unit sales. No double-digit growth there, but nothing under 3% either. All these figures from IRI represent grocery, drugstores, and mass merchandisers, but do not include Wal-Mart.

Contrary to conventional consumer wisdom, the price at the stores may sometimes follow the drop in the price to farmers. Could it be that lower prices are helping to keep shredded cheese unit sales up? There's another possible explanation. More shredded cheese, complete with convenience packaging may be coming from a broader pool of vendors including private label and others offering a lower price. Consumers will pay for convenience, but they'll happily take a discount, too. Private label sales have grown at a brisk pace as more and more retailers see that consumers love the convenience of shredded cheese.

A look at the top 10 vendors of ice cream shows, not surprisingly, that Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream continues to be the market leader, followed closely by Nestle's Good Humor-Breyers, and then by Blue Bell. The big surprise here is Friendly Ice Cream Corp., jumping into the top 10 with double-digit sales increases. Overall, the segment showed its usual incremental sales growth during the 52-week period reported which ended March 23.

Quarterly milk sales figures show consistent declines in unit sales while dollar sales are frequently up. Because this category includes flavored and white milk of all fat varieties sold in a number of channels, it could be that added value has lead to better dollar sales performance even as unit sales slip. Because processors see the long-term benefits of introducing value added products like flavored milk, consumers are being offered more options every day.

Finally, the top 10 brands of flavored milk continue to fight for positions, with a lot of shifting among brands owned by Dean Foods. The category keeps growing, and private label is outpacing the average.