Holiday party season is here again, and supermarkets are inviting their customers over to try a new menu of party trays.
Capitalizing on their success with the high-margin category last year, deli merchandisers for the most part told SN they're broadening their variety of sizes and price points, with the aim of grabbing even more business.
They also said they're making new efforts to tell people what they've got. And in some cases they are using new labor-saving tactics to boost the bottom line even as they tweak their selections.
Not all retailers are reshaping their party program varieties in the same way. Some of the those SN interviewed are adding smaller trays at lower prices, to plumb a market they haven't previously targeted. Others said they would stick close to bigger ring items, or even build up the quality level of their large trays.
"We've upscaled our deluxe meat and cheese tray, our hands-down best seller," said Voni Woods, manager of deli operations at Riser Foods, Bedford Heights, Ohio. Riser operates 38 supermarkets under the Rini-Rego banner and supplies others as a wholesaler. "We're using our best premium products on it, and we expect record sales this holiday season."
An executive at a large Midwest chain, who asked not to be named, said his company also is focusing on its high-ring items.
"Party trays are so labor-intensive, you might as well put the work
in on a big hit. Anyway, I don't think people buy a party tray for two," he said.
Houston-based Fiesta Mart, however, is adopting a different party attitude. Party tray sales were up 15% last year from the year before, and were sparked by the addition of a $9.95 meat and cheese tray, said Larry Jones, the 18-unit chain's director of deli merchandising. The item, not surprisingly, will be featured as the life of the party again this year.
Riser Foods has added a smaller version of its signature carousel sandwich, which is made on a round loaf of bread with salad in the middle. The regular size retails for $29.99; the mini version sells for $14.99.
There's also an emphasis on lower price points this year at Copps Corp., Stevens Point, Wis. An entire new roster of 9-inch party tray varieties has been added at $9.99 each.
And the company is also making sure customers see the product every day in stores, said Kurt Krahn, director of deli and natural foods at Copps, which operates 18 supermarkets and supplies 38 others as a wholesaler.
"We've given our deli managers strict guidelines. They've been told to have a minimum of two varieties on display in the self-service case at all times, and enough of them to attract the customers' attention," Krahn said.
"Some of the stores are making up even smaller trays, for $4.99 and $5.99; some on six-inch trays, or they could be on nine-inch trays. It's the amount of labor involved that determines the price," Krahn said. He added that delis have been advised to have the trays in the self-service case by 10 a.m.
"We're aiming to capitalize on the grab-and-go impulse buy. People pick these up on the way to the office. It doesn't even have to be a party; sometimes companies have a day, every once in a while, when people bring in food, and this would be an easy thing to take in," Krahn said.
"We're building the idea that we have these to go. We know we lost business last year by not having them out," he added. "And by seeing these small trays every day, the customers will hopefully think of us when it comes to buying a bigger one for a special occasion." In addition to featuring lower-priced trays again this year, Fiesta Mart has added a hot tray in a microwavable package.
"Our sales were so good because of the lower price points last year, but I also think you have to keep offering something different each year, and we needed a hot tray," Jones said. In this case it is a new barbecue tray in two sizes -- one for $19.95 and one for $29.95.
Meanwhile, another Houston retailer, Rice Food Markets, has nearly doubled its variety of trays.
"We have 22 this year, compared to 13 last year, and we offer them all in small, medium and large sizes. We're featuring them in a new holiday brochure," said Douglas Dick, director of deli and bakery for Rice's six Rice Epicurean Markets.
Adding trays is not every retailer's idea for adding excitement, however. Some said that can baffle shoppers with too many choices.
The executive at a Midwest chain, for example, said his company has cut down on the types of trays it offers.
"We've cut the number down from 40 we offered last year to make it less confusing to the customer. We also used to have three sizes of each and we've cut that to just two," he said.
The addition of ethnic trays such as Mexican and Oriental are expected to boost sales substantially this year for Tidyman's Inc., Greenacres, Wash.
One of the 10-unit retailer's stores nearly doubled its tray sales last year. Valerie Martin, deli and food-service manager at that unit in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, attributed the sales boom partly to adding ethnic trays, and also partly to an employee incentive program. This year all Tidyman's units have been encouraged to incorporate both, Martin said.
Some retailers have pushed the quality of their trays further up the scale. Others have meticulously costed out their trays and have instituted portion-control measures in order to be competitive with prices and still get the profits they want.
Retailers also are telling consumers about trays in a lot of new ways. The tactics under way this month include mini expositions in the store, participating in community expos, devoting more space in ad circulars, making use of replica trays and displaying small, impulse-buy party trays in the self-service case every day. Mini expos in-store are a first for Seaway Food Town, Maumee, Ohio, and are expected to give party tray sales a good boost this year, said Pat Nowak, director of public relations and community affairs at the 44-unit chain.
During the expos, scheduled for two weekends in November and repeated the first two weekends in December, each department aggressively samples products and displays holiday-oriented items.
"In all our stores, the expos, which we're calling Season's Eatings, will give customers a chance to taste-test what we sell. An 8-foot table set up in the deli features party trays. And our own associates will be offering samples, and taking orders right there," Nowak said.
In another effort to give its party tray capabilities maximum exposure, the chain participated in a local department store's holiday show, with a display of several of its party trays.
"We've participated in their show in previous years, but we never displayed the real platters before. We just had a table with
our brochures there. This year we had the trays there and our deli managers were there to talk to people," Nowak said.
Copps Corp. took part, along with other retailers, in an expo this fall at a civic center in Madison, Wis. Party trays were the main feature of the chain's deli display there.
"We got a lot of positive comments," Krahn said. "We have some great-looking trays. For instance, people kept commenting on our veggie tray, which has an acorn squash in the middle of it that's thinly sliced in such a way that it looks like a flower." The preferred advertising medium for Fiesta Mart this year is word-of-mouth, Jones said. The goal is to produce double-digit sales increases again.
"The addition of the $9.95 trays last year got more people trying our trays, and they are good quality. We want to provide the best-value party tray in town. We're aiming to build volume," Jones said.
Catching customers' attention with real-looking replica party trays helped push same-store sales up 12% last holiday season over the year before at Harvest Foods, Little Rock, Ark.
"We have the replica trays in all our stores now. They get credit for at least half that jump in sales. The replicas are modeled after our actual best-selling trays. So people get to see what they really look like instead of just going by a picture in our brochure," said Kathy McDade, director of deli merchandising at the 59-unit chain.
McDade also said Harvest has instructed its deli managers to take 9-inch "sampler trays" to businesses in their store's area again this year, adding that each area always has new businesses springing up. "It works. We started that two years ago along with other things that we've since fine-tuned. We're not making any changes this year because we're happy with our party tray program. We expect another 10% increase this year, based mostly on word-of-mouth," McDade said.
Ads three times bigger than last year's are expected to push sales of party trays up at Waldbaum's, Central Islip, N.Y., a 92-unit division of A&P, Montvale, N.J.
"We've updated our brochure and this is the first time we've had this much space in our ad circular for party trays. It's about an eighth of a page," said Alan Utstein, Waldbaum's director of deli.
There's nothing new in advertising at Tidyman's, but deli associates themselves are expected to push sales to new heights this year. At the chain's Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, store, party tray sales were doubled last year, thanks in part to the incentive of $100 going to the associate that sold the most trays, Martin said.
"It was money well spent, and this year more of our stores are going to be doing that," Martin added.
Sampling in-store this year is expected to give sales a push at Rice's Epicurean Markets stores.
"We've had associates offering samples from an antipasto tray two days a week since the last week of October," said Dick at Rice. He added that the antipasto tray, new this year, is featured in a color photo on the front of the chain's updated brochure.
"We want people to taste the quality. Our priorities this year, besides adding variety, have been quality and portion control. We're using premium meats and cheeses and we added an epicurean fruit platter that includes seasonal items and specialty fruits such as mini kiwis," Dick said.
When Riser Foods cranked up the quality of its trays this year, it did so in order to get more people "oohing and aahing about our trays," Woods said.
"When someone buys one of our party trays, we know that about 25 other people will be tasting what's on it," she said, underscoring the value of word-of-mouth advertising.
"We also make sure a loaf of today's fresh-baked bread from our bakery goes out with the tray. The quality of the bread can make or break a tray," Woods said. She added that party tray sales are already up 6% to 7% over the same period last year. "Maybe it's because the [Cleveland] Indians did so well this year," she said, indicating that people were probably having baseball-watching parties.
"If sales keep up at that rate, we'll have a record holiday season."
While Rice went with more upscale trays this year, it also took new measures to cut costs, Dick said.
"We got very organized and costed everything out. We gave each of our delis precise recipes for each tray. For example, we've told them exactly how many ounces of each meat and cheese and how to place it on the tray. We had to to that to make sure the gross percentages are there," he added.
The executive at the large Midwest chain said his company also did some streamlining to bulk out the bottom line. Wrapped pickles, for instance, are a thing of the past, he said.
"We used to have little pickles and cream cheese wrapped up in ham slices on our trays. We're not doing that anymore. But there is a limit to how much labor you can cut out. You want the tray to look nicely arranged or people won't pay the money for it," he said.