Viewpoint -- Will Toucan Sam Go Way Of The Dodo?

Cereal makers are poring over ways to revive consumer interest, but are their tactics turning sour?

I remember Saturday mornings well. When I was a kid, my brother and I used to wake up no later than 7 a.m. and charge to the kitchen to pour a bowl of our favorite cereal. Mine was Boo Berry. Todd's was Frankenberry. After we made a mess in the kitchen, we would make our sloppy journey (cereal bowls sloshing milk and marshmallows everywhere) to the living room to watch Saturday morning cartoons. It was a ritual that we shared with many our age. Even today it is a topic of conversation that forms a bond among friends who remember Speed Racer, All Mighty Isis, and H.R. Pufnstuf. For some reason, I don't think that bacon and eggs, French toast, or pancakes would have complemented the Saturday-morning scene. Those foods are too contrived. In contrast, I don't think that Toaster Strudels or cereal bars would have made the cut either. Cereal provided entertainment and challenge. We used to have contests to see who could leave the most marshmallows in the milk -- and then we would slurp them up to achieve our sugar high for the day. But the times they are a changin'. According to Tom Vierhile, general manager of Naples, N.Y.-based Marketing Intelligence Service Ltd., breakfast cereals are "losing sales to more portable breakfast products." Indeed, a study of national eating trends, conducted by food-marketing-resource National Product Development Research Group, found that adults and kids are forgoing breakfast to keep pace with their hectic lifestyles. It seems that our paperless vision has snagged a few casualties along the way. Kids now have cell phones, personal digital assistants, and disciplined schedules to maintain. There is no time for Cocoa Puffs and cartoons. There's no sugar coating the facts: Cereal makers are losing money. According to Chicago-based Information Resources Inc., the cereal industry (all brands) has lost nearly $1 billion in ready-to-eat cereal sales since 1995. To keep afloat, cereal makers are snap, crackle, popping to attention. Upon learning the latest eating trends, Kellogg USA - which by the way has lost $684 million in ready-to-eat cereal sales since 1995 according to Information Resources --introduced Eggo Waf-fulls, an all-in-one Eggo Waffle with a layer of filling on the inside. According to the company, "With Eggo Waf-fulls' innovative design, there's no need to use plates or add toppings because all the good stuff's inside." I understand the need to remain competitive, but the phrase "innovative design" and breakfast shouldn't be used together. And notice the reference to no plates needed. I interpret this as another paperless ploy -- at least in my house we use paper plates. Another cereal maker vying for adult and adolescent affections is General Mills. This time the trick is customization. I am all for customization of cars, jeans, furniture, and safety gear. . .but cereal? General Mills has introduced mycereal.com to the breakfast table. Although still in the infant stage, the Web site welcomes you to a land where cereals don't exist until you create them. In fact, the company "will formulate a cereal tailored to your individual tastes and health concerns, and deliver it right to your door." When I initially heard of this tactic from a co-worker, who by the way shares my nostalgia for Saturday morning cartoons and cereal, I was a bit miffed. I enjoy the creativity of "saving" the marshmallows for a glucose-laden finale or pretending that each bit of cereal is an island unto itself; but to expect me to create a cereal that is uniquely mine is asking a bit much. The possibilities are mind numbing. And once I get past the fear of plenty, I start to worry about failure. What happens if I concoct a cereal so disgusting that Mikey won't even eat it? Or better yet, wonder if I stumble across a combination that is so pleasing to the palate that everyone wants my cereal -- will I get the fame and fortune that is sure to follow? Aside from my turn offs, how will General Mills, who according to Information Resources has lost nearly $79 million in ready-to-eat cereal sales since 1995, keep up? Say that mycereal.com catches on and millions of cereal aficionados try their hand at cereal creation -- will the Big G have the capacity to fulfill every order while maintaining the line for such favorites as Cheerios, Trix, and Lucky Charms? It's a question that deserves consideration, lest we want to deprive those adults and kids who do have time for a bowl, spoon, milk, and cereal. Not all cereal makers are opting for the bells and whistles of designer cereals. Some are just repackaging tried-and-true favorites in hopes of swaying some weary shopper into buying convenience. Post, which is owned by Kraft Foods and posted a loss of ready-to-eat cereal sales of $205 million since 1995 according to Information Resources, and has developed Post Snack*Abouts -- individually sized bags of already proven cereals. The hook: "Cereal is such a satisfying snack, wouldn't it be great if you could enjoy it anytime, anywhere? But carrying that big box isn't very practical." The outcome: single-serve bags that enable consumers to tote their cereal "to work, school, in the car, lunchbox, or anywhere you'd want a convenient snack." Not to knock Post or Kellogg, but I'm glad they didn't use the term "innovative" in the marketing copy. Let's face it, we've all seen mothers and fathers give their toddlers a sandwich bag full of cereal to munch on. And although I am years removed from the toddler stage, I have been known to grab the box of cereal, stroll to the couch, and proceed to snack on cereal -- sans milk -- and watch the "Simpsons," "South Park," or "Futurama." I wonder if my brother does the same thing? When the smoke and mirrors clear, I hope that the cereal ebb will pass. As Cap'n Crunch as my witness, I promise to do my part. I will keep the cereal spoon in the drawer for my children and my children's children. Traci Purdum is an IW associate editor based in Cleveland.

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