Big Box Goes Organic as Target Pulls Canned Soups, Easy Mac

The Minneapolis-based retail chain isn't making many new friends in big food.

(Photo: Mike Mozart/Flickr)

May 19, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Josh Scherer has written for Epicurious, Thrillist, and Los Angeles magazine. He is constantly covered in corn chip crumbs.

Have you ever walked through the cereal aisle and felt like someone was watching you? Like there were eyes on the back of your neck that you just couldn't shake? Well, someone was watching you—a lot of people, actually. Toucan Sam, Cap'n Crunch, Tony the Tiger, and even the Wheaties athlete du jour are all printed on cereal boxes to give the illusion of eye contact, which, according to Cornell food psychology professor Brian Wansink, increases brand loyalty by 16 percent. The children's cereals, in all their brightly colored, toy-promising magnificence, are even placed a foot-and-a-half lower on average than so-called adult cereals—to better lock eyes with their target demographic.

That's just one of the tried-and-true product placement gimmicks that supermarkets use to manipulate customer purchases. It may become a thing of the past, however, as big-box retailers like Walmart are making big money on organic and other "healthy" food items. Which is partly why Target, which has been beefing up its grocery game in recent years, is throwing a wrench into the corporate status quo.

CEO Brian Cornell, who was hired in August 2014 in part to stimulate Target's floundering food sales, recently gathered representatives from major prepackaged- food companies like General Mills, Campbell's, and Kraft Foods to inform them that their products wouldn't be occupying the same prime shelf space that they used to. This is all part of Target's new strategy to promote healthier, fresher options—to appeal to a younger, more health-conscious, organic-prone consumer base. They're pretty much trying to be Whole Foods but with more big-screen TVs and $19 jeans.

RELATED: Kraft Drops Dubious 'Kids Eat Right' Label From its Processed 'Cheese' Singles

"That doesn't mean that mac and cheese is being eliminated,” Cornell told the Wall Street Journal, which broke the news Monday morning. “But clearly assortment is being shaped around what consumers are looking for." And consumers are looking for more small-brand, organic options that don't come with mascots and toys.

But if you're suddenly feeling as if Target is returning your long unrequited love, realize that this isn't about you. The decision, which also gives less visible signage to name brands, is less moralistic than it is economic. Big brands like Campbell's, Kraft, and General Mills just haven't been selling like they used to. Since 2005, children's cereal sales have fallen 10.7 percent and canned soup sales have dropped 13 percent. In 2014, Kraft's profits were down 62 percent from the previous year. Conversely, yogurt, which Target plans on heavily promoting, has seen sales jump by 113 percent since 2001. It's most popular among the 18–34 demographic.

So, next time you're trying to meet Cap'n Crunch's creepy, bug-eyed gaze at Target, you may have to look for it behind a pallet of organic granola or a towering shelf of steel-cut oats.