When choosing between a box of Frosted Flakes and a knock-off brand, more consumers are willing to ditch Tony the Tiger and say: “They’re gooood enough!”
Store brand cereal sales spiked nearly 20% this past year as Americans scrimped and saved by switching to the cheaper options.
“Consumers have become increasingly value-seeking and more fickle in their decisions,” said Brittany Quatrochi, a food industry analyst at Edward Jones. “By and large the consumer remains resilient, but less predictable.”
The big cereal makers — two of which are based in Minnesota — shouldn’t be too worried, she said. Even with the recent growth, store brands accounted for just about 7% of all U.S. retail cereal sales over the past year, according to Chicago-based market research firm Circana.
Price increases provided much of the sales growth. When inflationary pressures hit businesses, the big brands kept pushing their prices higher while private label cereal held the line. But these store brand cereals finally succumbed, raising prices on average by 12% in the past year.
Market share has shifted a bit, too. Private label manufacturers sold 6% more boxes and bags of cereal over the past year. Market-leading General Mills, close competitor Kellogg and third-place Post Consumer Brands sold fewer units — industry parlance for boxes and bags — across the board.
Leaders of the big brands quickly dismiss the notion that consumers are revolting because of price increases. Instead, they attribute their sales volume declines to the “normalizing” of the cereal category following the pandemic.
“It’s already quite an affordable category,” W.K. Kellogg CEO Gary Pilnick told analysts earlier this month. “Even at the premium side of the business, it’s still very accessible and affordable to our consumers.”
What is normal? The long, slow decline in consumer demand for ready-to-eat cereal. While still profitable as it shrinks, the pandemic-era boost wasn’t going to last.
“Cereal is not a fast-growing category,” Quatrochi said. “It did really well during COVID, but it’s going to revert back to its prior ways of maybe low single-digit declines.”
Golden Valley-based General Mills had been widening its lead as the top cereal producer for several years, but it recently lost ground to Kellogg.
Kellogg faced a major labor strike, fires and a spinoff of its cereal business over the past few years.
“That gave General Mills some tailwinds to take market share, but I don’t think anyone expected them to keep all the share they gained,” Quatrochi said. “There’s an equilibrium.”
Honey Nut Cheerios, Cinnamon Toast Crunch and regular Cheerios remain the three top-selling cereals in the U.S., according to Circana. Lucky Charms comes in at number six.
“My expectation for our cereal business is that we grow a little bit every year and hopefully take a little bit of [market] share every year,” General Mills CEO Jeff Harmening said earlier this fall. “I love how we’ve been competing.”
General Mills doesn’t need cereal to repeat its pandemic-era growth for it to be profitable, however. “We don’t need to grow a lot, we can grow a little bit,” Jon Nudi, the company’s president for North American retail, said.
He sees Kellogg’s resurgence as a boost for all cereal.
“If you go back through history, when the two major competitors in the category are supporting it with marketing as well as innovation, the category does better,” Nudi said. “So we hope everyone comes to play.”
The nation’s third-largest cereal producer is a big fan of the store-brand cereal boom.
Lakeville-based Post Consumer Brands is known for its best-selling Honey Bunches of Oats, Fruity Pebbles and Grape Nuts. But it also manufactures some private label cereals as well as low-cost options from MOM Brands (Malt-O-Meal).
“While still below premium branded cereal, our profit margins on value and private label products have meaningfully increased over the past several years,” Jeff Zadoks, Post Holdings interim CEO, said last week. “We believe our diversification serves us well.”
Even as price increases on branded cereals brought in better sales, Quatrochi says cereal makers will be focusing on growing volume in the years ahead.
For Post, it could take a while to start selling more Pebbles as the company focuses on incorporating its faster-growing pet food acquisitions.
“We expect to return to the pre-pandemic levels of flat to down a couple of percent” in cereal, Zadoks said. “We’re not counting on volume growth in our plan for next year.”
The company formerly known as Kellogg split into two public companies in October — Kellanova, focused largely on snacks, and W.K. Kellogg Co., focused solely on cereal.
During the first earnings call for the standalone cereal company in early November, CEO Pilnick said things are looking up.
“The consumer is under pressure … so we recognize that’s happening in the broader environment,” he said. “It’s interesting for us because the cereal category tends to perform well in situations like this when the economy is behaving the way it is.”
Kellogg boasts nine of the top 20 cereal brands in the U.S., with Frosted Flakes and Froot Loops among its top sellers. The Michigan-based company faces the same slow-growth or slow-decline dynamics as the rest of the cereal market, but it is betting on a more focused approach.
“This all started with the belief that the cereal business would be stronger as an independent company,” Pilnick said.
Quatrochi said it will take some time for Kellogg to settle in.
“Their plan is to reduce costs and step up marketing and investments behind the brands,” she said. “I think General Mills can continue to be a leader in the space, as Kellogg has a lot of heavy lifting to do over the next several years.”