If you're startled by a loud crash the week before Thanksgiving, relax: it's probably just supermarket pie sales blasting through the roof.
If there's one thing supermarket bakery executives can count on, it's that annual pie explosion during the last seven weeks of the year. As sure as autumn brings ruddy apples and massive pumpkins, consumers seem unable to leave stores that time of year without a pie or two tucked into their bulging shopping carts.
In fact, if you broke down the industry's annual pie sales by the week to illustrate those figures in -- what else? -- a pie chart, two enormous wedges representing Thanksgiving and Christmas weeks would dominate.
But what about the whole pie? While sales increase three-, four-, even five-fold in many stores around year-end, sales in general may be showing signs of stabilization after a few years of robust growth.
Still, some say there's room for continued expansion in select segments.
Although some retailers are content with the low- or no-fat and sugar-free fruit pies they now sell, others still avidly seek a magic formula for a top-quality "lite" pie.
Others believe an expansion of self-service capabilities holds the key to increased sales, allowing in-store bakeries to market better their signature fresh pies.
And some still swear there is gold to be found in individual, 4-inch pies. But for the most part, bakery managers seem content merely to keep up with demand, counting their lucky stars -- and receipts -- as they gear up for the seasonal surge.
"Our sales skyrocket during those weeks," said George Jenkins, bakery/deli buyer/merchandiser for the 17-store Spokane, Wash.-based Rosauer's Supermarkets.
"Pumpkin pies especially [sell well]. But in pies overall, we probably do three times normal business then," compared to a 25% increase in the rest of the bakery, he said.
Rosauer's will feature one variety of pie each week in newspaper ads, discounting nine-inch fruit pies from $5.49 to $4.49, and nine-inch cream pies from $4.99 to $3.99.
Rosauer's bakeries make their own crusts and bake pies on-site, and the category accounts for a vigorous 18% of bakery, up "at least 25%" in the past five years. Jenkins said he knows why.
"I think the thing that's really pushing growth is the refrigerated self-service cases we installed at most of our stores. They're really moving the pies out of there, and the vast majority of our sales now come from there."
"People are buying a lot more because they can walk up, pick them up and go. We're stacking them a lot higher in the case, and the more we sell, the more we put in." Rapid case turnover maintains a sense of freshness key to self-service marketing, he said.
At 167-store Giant Food, Thanksgiving sales propel the category.
"Pies have been pretty soft through the off-season for us, but we're about to go back into a promotion mode for the holidays," said Mark Coffin, director of dairy and bakery manufacturing for the Landover, Md.-based chain.
Giant will stagger promotional materials to focus first on fruit pies, and later on pumpkin, mince and other holiday favorites. A two-week pumpkin promotion last year cut prices 33% on 10- and eight-inch pies that originally retailed at $5.29 and $3.79.
The result? Sales increased more than 400% against the previous year's holiday -- but only with pumpkin pies.
"There's not much demand for exotic pie flavors here. Pumpkin's the thing our customers are most looking for. We'll see increases across the category, but nothing like pumpkin," he said.
During the promotion, Giant sold between 100,000 and 150,000 pumpkin pies, while all other varieties combined were below 50,000. But annual sales there have slowed slightly over the past five years, now accounting for about three percent of bakery.
Almost all Giant pies arrive fully-baked from the company's central plant. Coffin said he carries a few gourmet, deep-dish thaw-and-bake pies, and occasionally tries out a thaw-and-sell from store freezers.
At 20 of the 80 Indianapolis-based Marsh Supermarkets, separate pie shops making from-scratch pies adjoin the in-store bakeries. The shops have built consumer loyalty, according to the assistant director of deli-bakery-food service, Doug Held. Even though fresh 10-inch pies sell for up to 30% more than shelf-stable eight-inchers, the fresh pies account for 70% of sales. "That's the pie they want to put on their holiday table," Held explained. As a result, during the two busy holiday weeks, category sales jump almost 400%.
Marsh's also carries a four-inch individual serving pie, packaged during the holidays with plastic wrap and decorated with bows.
Held and his vice president of deli-bakery-food service, Gianfranco Di Carlo, both new to Marsh, said they expect pie sales to grow above the current 5% to 8% of bakery.
"Sales have been increasing slightly, but we expect, as we try to sell the pies in a more self-service format, that we'll increase sales, 30%, 40%, even 50% over previous years," Held said.
While most bakers still get excited about the up-coming pie boom, others are less sanguine.
"I think we've peaked. Pies are pies," said a bakery vice president at a western chain with more than 50 units, who wished to remain anonymous.
"As far as promotions go, it's business as usual. We used to do two-for-$5, but since everybody got in the act, it doesn't have the impact it used to.
"But it's still a good category, at least for us. I think in order to be successful, you must be able to merchandise. If you just put a low price on it and nobody knows about it, it doesn't do any good. You need signage and mass displays."
The western bakery executive noted that "lite" and four-inch pies haven't moved well at his stores, which focus on expensive pies from Halloween through Christmas.
In the Ft. Collins, Colo., area, good pie sales demand merchandising and promotions, said Barb Harner, director of bakery at Steele's there.
"We typically run some really good promotions on pies, and put up a couple of tables in each store so that the ad we run is massively merchandised. We wrap pies in cellophane with bows, and get a dollar more for them during the holidays."
She sells pie by the slice and runs two samplings annually to acquaint customers with new products, but does very little discounting, due to strong sales. "We already sell thousands and thousands of pies for $3.98."
In Houston, Rice Epicurean Markets stay away from holiday promotions because they can barely match demand now, said director of deli and bakery operations Douglas Dick.
Dick, who expects his usual 200% increase at Thanksgiving, keeps close tabs on pumpkin pie sales.
"Pumpkin pie has to be carefully planned for. We keep really tight records on that, so we don't get hung up with a whole bunch of pumpkin pies. They don't do very well in July in Texas."
The company includes apple, pumpkin and pecan pies in their holiday dinner packages that come complete with "everything except butter, wine and flowers," he added.
Rice keeps the quality level of its pies high, and Dick thinks that's where the market is heading, at least for his business.
"I think for deep-dish pies, sales will continue to go up, but I don't see your basic eight-inch, $2.99 pie going up anymore. We don't even carry those. Even though the cost on deep-dish is way up, we're sticking with them." Rice Epicurean bakes-off 75% of their pies, bought mainly from one vendor.
Rice Epicurean also modifies the crusts on open-top pies for different holidays. For the last Valentine's Day, for instance, instead of lattice-tops, it covered cherry pies with heart-shaped crust cut-outs.
The company also runs periodic dollar-off display and discount promos with Bigelow Teas, who provide coupons for consumers who buy tea with their pies.
But Dick isn't content. He said he is looking to grow his cream pie sales with a possible roll-out next spring of signature lemon cream, coconut cream and possibly chocolate peanut butter cream pies.
Keith Kersten, vice president of perishable operations at the Edina, Minn.-based Byerly's, said that, like some other company's catering to quality-oriented shoppers, his chain struggles to keep up with demand, even though their popular signature foot-high apple pie sells for $10.99, plus a $1.75 deposit for a returnable glass pie plate.