No frozen food department is an island, especially when it comes to promotions. Indeed, if you stuck today's most successful retail and wholesale philosophies for frozen food promotion under a microscope, you'd be likely to see them mutating before your eyes in reaction to changing forces both from outside the company and within.
It's a brand of dynamic marketing chemistry being practiced by at least four operators -- Fleming Cos., Harris Teeter, Spartan Stores and Save Mart Supermarkets -- each of whom subjected their philosophies to some scrutiny during the retail executive conference of the National Frozen Food Association, held earlier this year in Houston.
The session was called "What's Hot, What's Not" in merchandising and promotions, and it touched some industry hot buttons, such as Efficient Consumer Response and Wal-Mart anxiety. However, the talks relied less on conceptual buzzwords and more on in-depth portrayals of given companies' approaches to promoting a complex category in a changing market.
One common thread was the growing interdependency of needs, goals and actions governing frozen promotions.
In the case of Harris Teeter, Charlotte, N.C., the challenge is to find a leading role for frozen foods within a format that leans more and more on the "fresh food" superstars, such as deli and produce, for store image.
"There's more competition inside the stores, and something has got to make room for changes," said Larry Nivens, the chain's director of grocery, dairy and frozen foods. He uses promotion to lean against the temptation to make frozens that "something."
The sprawling wholesaler Fleming, based in Oklahoma City, is rectifying its corporate philosophy with more than two dozen different divisional approaches to promotion.
Gary Boatman, manager of frozen food and dairy, said one of the biggest challenges is to balance the global goal of cultivating total department sales and profits against the fast-moving skirmishes over hot prices at the local level.
"They no longer promote just the basics," he said. "If you build your business on price only, you can always be outpromoted."
Getting outmaneuvered by mass merchandisers was a growing concern for Spartan Stores and its retail members, with attending impacts on frozens merchandising.
John Sommavilla, manager of frozen and dairy purchasing for the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based cooperative, helped mate frozens with a companywide effort to "bond with our customers against Super Kmart and Wal-Mart." The offspring includes a greater presence for frozens in weekly ads and an aggressive role for Spartan as the instigator of special events and merchandising.
Integration is the trend at Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif. Pat Brooks, director of frozen food and dairy, outlined the chain's exhaustive recipe for making sure frozen food promotions stand not on their own, but jibe with the total store's objectives.
"We want to develop programs to financially compensate the department, and complement what we are trying to do as a total store theme," Brooks explained.
Fortunately for frozens, that can mean giving it bigger billing than ever.
What follows is the nitty gritty of evolution in progress, at least as seen and influenced by four savvy frozen food merchandisers.