Two of the best performing categories of recent years seem to have taken two different paths in recent months, at least in terms of food store sales.

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Two of the best performing categories of recent years seem to have taken two different paths in recent months, at least in terms of food store sales.

According to the latest numbers from Information Resources Inc., yogurt sales continue to grow at a respectable pace, although that growth has slowed a bit. But natural cheese, which experienced 9% dollar growth for a while in 2004, is now losing ground in terms of both dollar and unit sales.

These numbers are for food, drugstore and mass merchandisers, not including Wal-Mart.

The yogurt figures include both cup yogurt and yogurt drinks. Yogurt drinks are not shown separately here but according to IRI data, yogurt drinks are accelerating again, with 9% dollar growth and 14% to 16% unit growth in the last couple of quarters. Overall yogurt sales had been better than 5% each quarter (by dollar) but were just below that for first quarter 2006.

The natural cheese segment started slipping in dollar sales late last year. Unit sales have in fact been fairly flat throughout 2005 and the first quarter of this year. It should be noted that these figures do not include foodservice sales where a good deal of natural cheese is sold. And according to USDA, natural cheese production grew 2.6% in 2005.

Back to yogurt for a moment, a listing of the top vendors shows that most are experiencing some level of growth in the 52 weeks ended April 16. Only three felt losses during the period, and at least one (if not all) of those could be explained by changes in ownership or brand strategies.

The fastest growing vendor continues to be Stonyfield Farm which now trails only Yoplait, Dannon and private label, and grew by a whopping 22% last year in terms of volume and dollar sales.

Finally, we look at quarterly sales of ice cream and sherbet. This is IRI's most encompassing measure of the category, and it includes packed ice cream, all types of frozen novelties, frozen yogurt and sorbet.

Historically, ice cream may be the steadiest of dairy's four major segments, so no big surprises here. Quarterly sales by unit have been dipping and skipping just a point or less above and below the flat line for the last six quarters, with the exception being third quarter 2005 where they jumped 3.7%.

We'll take a broader look at ice cream and the other three major segments in our expanded Dairy Market Trends in the July Dairy Foods Buyers Guide and Source Book.