Crunching the numbers of our soggy relationship with breakfast cereal

2 weeks ago by Joshua Fruhlinger in Features, Trends

Ask yourself this: when was the last time you poured a bowl of cereal for breakfast? If you answered, "This morning," you are part of a declining populace.

Changes in diets are turning people away from from morning carbs. Gluten-free and protein-rich are now morning keywords as people spend more on the most important meal of the day. Cereal, if anything, is a backup plan these days. Even Cheerios is now gluten free in an effort to remain market relevant.

Gone are the days of Seinfeld-like libraries of every cereal under the sun. Instead, here are the days of protein-loaded chia seeds, carb-free omelettes, and gluten-free pancakes. 

While it's estimated that 9 out of 10 households still have some cereal in their cupboards, sales are declining.

"Over the five years to 2017," Rory Masterson, a cereal-business analyst told CBS News, "revenue has declined 3.3 percent."

Cereal's gradual decline

At Walmart ($NYSE:WMT), America's largest retail chain, sales of cereal began their slow decline in 2016. Once top-20 sellers at the big-box store, cereals, on average, are sinking to the basement half of the top-100 items in Walmart's "Food" category. Roughly 62 cereals are sold at any time at Walmart.

The most common 20 are listed in the chart below (numbers are cumulative for individual UPCs since 2016):

Name

Name (Count)

French Toast Crunch Cereal, 11.6 oz

369

Kellogg's Frosted Flakes Cereal Family Size, 26.8 oz

204

Honey Nut Cheerios Gluten Free 26.6 oz Giant Size Cereal

193

Kellogg's Froot Loops Whole Grain Cereal, 21.7 ounce

189

Vans Gluten Free Breakfast Cereal, Honey Crunch, 11 Oz

160

French Toast Crunch Cereal 11.6 oz Box

152

Cheerios Gluten Free Breakfast Cereal, 21 oz, Family Size Cereal Box

141

General Mills Honey Nut Cheerios Gluten Free Cereal 26.6 oz. Box

136

Kellogg's Froot Loops Multi-Grain Cereal Family Size, 21.7 oz

124

Van's Honey Nut Crunch Whole Grain Cereal, 11 oz

119

Cheerios Toasted Whole Grain Oat Cereal Family Size 21 oz

98

Honey Nut Cheerios Gluten Free Cereal, 26.6 oz

90

Cheerios Family Size Gluten Free Cereal, 21 oz

90

Cheerios Gluten Free Breakfast Cereal, 18 oz Box

88

Kellogg's Special K Pumpkin Spice Halloween Crunch Cereal, 12.4 oz

83

Cheerios Family Size Gluten Free Cereal, 21 oz (Pack of 2)

74

French Toast Crunch Cereal 11.6 oz. Box

71

French Toast Crunch Breakfast Cereal, 11.6 oz, Box

70

Post Shredded Wheat Honey Nut Spoon Size Cereal, 20 oz

63

Honey Nut Cheerios? Cereal 26.6 oz. Box

62

Cheerios struggle for breakfast relevancy

According to analysts, Cheerios is the most-popular cereal sold in America. As such, it paints a reflective picture of the breakfast food's retail story.

In 2015, General Mills ($NYSE:GIS) rolled out gluten-free Cheerios as a way to meet consumers' wariness (and allergy to) the protein found wheat, barley, and rye. Then, in 2016, the Canadian Celiac Association issued a warning that it didn't trust the process General Mills was using to separate out gluten-containing grains. General Mills removed the "Gluten-Free" label and Cheerios sales, at least temporarily, tanked.

Cheerios traction with fans on Facebook has been stagnant as well. The brand saw a steady increase throughout 2016 and 2017, but likes for its Facebook page plateaued — and even decreased — into 2018. 

Frosted Flakes: They're grreeat? Or not.

Frosted Flakes, the sugar-coasted siblings or Corn Flakes, and the guilty pleasure of every American who's ever watched a Saturday morning cartoon, has had a volatile ride when it comes to sales ranks over time. At the end of 2017, it was a top-10 product as people tucked in for the holidays.

But at the end of the year and into early 2017, the brand took a political stand when it removed its ads from right-wing news website Breitbart in a move that gained the brand fans on the left and enemies on the right. A barrage of anti-Kelloggs stories from right-leaning outlets followed, and sales at deep-American Walmart locations faltered.

Sales of Frosted Flakes have since normalized a bit, but they're nowhere near their 2016 apex.

Is the bowl half-empty or half-full?

Cereal industry is "still almost a $10 billion industry," Masterson reminded CBS News. Eating habits and discretionary income change with the wind, and there's always something comforting about a humble bowl of cereal regardless of what's going on outside our living rooms. It's hard to imagine a world without cereal, and, frankly, who would want to?

Joshua Fruhlinger

Joshua has been writing about technology, lifestyle, and business for over 20 years. He's one of the original writers and editors for Engadget, and still writes a...

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