Bigger seems to be better, at least in some merchandise categories in the Center Store aisles. Retail supermarkets are adding more large-size packages, in part to compete with the growing number of warehouse and supercenter stores.
Paradoxically, the good economy also is contributing to the trend of buying in bulk.
Retail supermarket managers and grocery consultants see a continuing increase in demand for large, economical-sized packages -- which can go by a variety of names, such as bulk, family-size or institutional-sized -- and the availability of large-size items is being used by store managers to draw new customers into the stores and keep the old customers happy.
"We look at the competition, and that includes the superstores, and see what they are doing and we try to match that," said Don Kelly, buyer for B&B Corporate Holdings, which owns 17 U-Save Supermarkets in and around Tampa, Fla.
"Stocking large-size items has evolved over time after it was brought to the forefront by the superstores," he added.
Retail supermarkets carry a wide range of items in large sizes, with none stocking everything available, so determining total sales is difficult if not impossible. However, ACNielsen in Schaumburg, Ill., reports sales of large-size items that range from healthy increases to astronomical jumps. ACNielsen numbers include sales at supercenters.
Sales of canned vegetables in 40-ounce cans increased from $35.9 million for the 52-week period ended Oct. 10, 1998, to $38.3 million the next year, a 6.6% increase, and to $39.4 million for the 52-week period ended Oct. 7, 2000, a 2.9 % increase. Other large sizes of canned vegetables scored equally respectable gains, such as the 108-ounce cans, which rose from $10.4 million to $11.7 million, an 11.8 % increase, to $12.8 million, a 9.4 % increase, for that same three-year period.
At the same time, sales for ketchup in the 54-ounce container soared from $25.6 million for the year ended Oct. 10, 1998, to $35.5 million the next year, a 38.4% increase, while sales of crackers in a 48-ounce box jumped from a modest $734,000 in 1998 to $1.1 million in 1999 and then to $1.4 million in 2000, increases of 49% and 28%, respectively.
Likewise, sales of paper towels in eight-count packages went from $92 million in 1998 to $131 million in 1999, a 41.6% increase, to $179 million in 2000, a 36.4% increase, and toilet tissue in 24-count packages went from $220 million in 1998 to $271 million in 1999, a 23% increase, to $319 million in 2000, a 17.8% increase.
The ACNielsen numbers are born out by retailers' experience.
"One of our biggest-selling large-size items is toilet tissue in 24-count packages," Kelly of U-Save said. "Paper products and laundry detergent are the best sellers. When the supercenter stores started hitting our area we decided to see what would work. We feature large packs in advertising and put out pallet displays in high traffic areas. We might consider end displays in the future. We just started carrying 28-ounce vegetables, so it is too early to know how that particular item is selling."
Eileen Murray, replenishment buyer for Laurel Grocery Co., which operates supermarkets under several names in Kentucky, agreed large sizes meet the demands of some customers.
"It is something we stock because our customers were requesting it," Murray said. "I don't know if they asked us for it because of the supercenter stores or not. We have chunk pineapples in 108-ounce cans, green beans in 101-ounce cans, baked beans in 117-ounce cans and many more."
The store puts each item on the same shelves with smaller-sized SKUs so it is difficult to determine how much shelf space is devoted to bulk-size items. Large packs of paper towels and toilet paper, which start out being less expensive than smaller packages, are featured at prices that are further reduced to get people into the store, she said, and many of the items are displayed on pallets.
But the idea that everything in a large quantity is less expensive than a smaller quantity is not necessarily true, Murray said.
"A lot of things are going to be cheaper, but not necessarily everything," she said.
Studies are released at intervals saying customers' expectations are not being met because large-size items are not being sold at significantly lower prices. However, some of the attraction of buying larger-sizes is the ability to stock up on items so that less time is spent shopping, said Jon Hauptman, vice president of Willard Bishop Consulting based in Barrington, Ill.
"In part, the popularity of large-sized items is a reflection of the good economy because more people can afford to invest in large sizes so they do not have to shop so often," Hauptman said. "When warehouse stores first opened, it was only relatively affluent people who were shopping there because they were the only ones who could spend that much money at once.
"At that time, package sizes were monstrous," he explained. "Now manufacturers have seen the opportunity and they are producing packages that are bigger than normal but not monstrous. This makes it easier to purchase, and it helps supermarkets where shelf space is so costly."
A way for supermarkets to gain a reputation of being value-conscious is to have large sizes and private labels, Hauptman said.
"For the most part, except when small sizes are on sale, what you should be getting with most large sizes is economy," he added. "If a retailer has a wide variety of family-sized items, it can dramatically enhance the price-conscious image. Alternatively, those who do not have a range of large sizes are projecting a higher price image to the public.
"The thing that is so exciting about large packs is it appeals to the price-conscious shopper and more and more people are becoming price-conscious. This is someone to whom the brand does not matter," Hauptman said.
"While someone may not shop for price in every instance, they do so for some items. If a retailer offers a large variety of family packs, it encourages the consumer to shop that store more intensely. The area a lot of supermarkets have not explored for large packs as yet is in perishables," he added.
Some retailers, like Save Mart Supermarkets with 96 stores in California, try to take maximum advantage of customers' desire for larger sizes by stocking items on the shelves with smaller-sized packages, as well as having a "value pack aisle" that makes the larger sizes easy to find, said Sally Sanborn, Save Mart director of marketing.
Save Mart stocks paper and soap products, frozen foods, snacks and beverages in large sizes.
"The number of categories has grown as the club stores have proliferated," Sanborn said. "We have duplicate locations for many items if the store has room and we feature them in the weekly ads. Snacks and paper products sell especially well."
Each of the Save Mart stores carries some large-sized items, although the volume and number of categories can vary from store to store, she said, but all of the store aims these products at large families and the price-conscious shopper.
Strack & Van Till Supermarkets based in Schererville, Ill., has found locating large-sized items in a separate section of the supermarket to be the most effective tool, said spokesman John Schoon. The stores feature special sales to draw customers into the store.
"Large families, the economy-minded shopper and special-event shoppers are the ones who buy the larger sizes," Schoon said, "with the best sellers being vegetables, gravies, salad dressings, vegetable oils and pickles. Some of our stores carry many more categories in large sizes and the ones that do the best are the ones that have the lowest price formats."
Chris Maher, CEO of Marketing Drive USA, a global marketing service based in Wilton, Conn., agreed with the marketing techniques used by retailers.
"Grocery stores carrying these items are speaking to families with children. There has been a blurring across the lines of all channels and that applies to club stores and regular retailers as well.
"A supermarket has an advantage because they have 40,000 SKUs compared to a club store with 1,000 SKUs," he said. "Retailers have used larger sizes to try to retain their customers and blunt the inroads being made by the club stores."