Thanksgiving week could be the blow-out sales week of the year for in-store bakeries.
Industry sources have repeatedly pointed out that Thanksgiving is the holiday that belongs to the bakery. And they've said quality matters more than price. So SN set out to see how ISBs are approaching Thanksgiving.
"This is a very big entertaining holiday. Not everybody has an Easter dinner or a Christmas dinner, but just about everybody in the United States has a family meal, or has been invited to a family meal, on Thanksgiving Day," said Ed Weller, a Tucson, Ariz.-based consultant who works with supermarkets.
Weller noted that now is prime time to spotlight upscale, high-ring items in the bakery. People getting ready to entertain or who are looking to take a pie or a cake to their host want something nice, he said. Nobody wants to serve a $2 pie and nobody wants to bring one.
After all, there are people to impress. In-laws fly in for the weekend, college freshmen bring their roommates home, long-distance relatives drive from miles away and sometimes even work colleagues come to dinner. So, what pies to get, what kinds of rolls, and bread, and what to give guests in the morning if they're staying over? Busy consumers need help.
When SN dispatched its secret shopper to find out -- by telephone -- if ISBs are up for the challenge, the results were not surprising. Bakery associates were all polite, and tried to be helpful. But for the most part, they didn't try to upsell or even suggest add-ons. There were exceptions.
A huge, six-pound loaf of Russian rye for $18 "looks great on the table, and would definitely impress dinner guests," said one deli-bakery manager. An associate at another chain suggested a $24.99 breakfast tray for the morning after the big day, and voluntarily described it in detail.
More often, SN's secret shopper found associates recommending low-ring items, even sale items.
Bakeries to be called were selected at random, and represent some of the major supermarket chains in the United States. Included were Albertsons, Boise, Idaho; Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla.; Harris-Teeter, Charlotte, N.C.; Kroger Co., Cincinnati; Haggen Foods, Bellingham, Wash.; Acme Markets, Malvern, Pa. (an Albertsons division); Meijer Inc., Grand Rapids, Mich.; Safeway, Pleasanton, Calif.; Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine; and Gristedes Supermarkets, New York.
SN's secret shopper told the person who answered the ISB's line that she would be ordering a large amount of baked goods for Thanksgiving and would like to ask some questions ahead of time. The shopper said she would be needing all kinds of baked goods for Thanksgiving dinner, that she would be entertaining 17 to 20 guests. Some of them, she said, would be staying overnight so she wanted suggestions for breakfast items.
The secret shopper was never put on hold or disconnected and the initial contact with the store was fine. One oddity, however, caused her to hesitate.
A recording that answered the phone at a Meijer store in Grand Rapids, asked callers to please "stay on the line for the next available agent." At that, SN's secret shopper almost hung up thinking she had mistakenly reached an airline or insurance company.
There at the Meijer store, a bakery associate suggested bagels for Friday morning.
"It won't do you any good now, but they're on sale, six for $2. Maybe they'll go on sale again," he said.
When asked what bread he would suggest for dinner that associate suggested a wagon wheel. Only upon further questioning, did he explain that a wagon wheel is "32 dinner rolls fastened together, for $3.29."
Some ISB staffers were apparently just ill-prepared to field questions.
An associate at a Hannaford Shop 'N Save store in Pittsfield, Maine, said, "I'm new, but I'll do my best to help you," and she probably did.
She talked about dinner rolls for $1.99 a dozen. In response to gentle interrogation, she also said the bakery had a muffin platter, but she didn't know how many muffins were on it, or how much it cost. Then, she politely suggested SN's shopper call back later when the manager would be there.
Similar situations were encountered at a Houston Fiesta Mart store, and at an Albertsons unit in Irvine, Calif. When SN's shopper prefaced her questions, during a mid-morning call, to Fiesta Mart's associate by saying she would be ordering quite a lot of baked goods for Thanksgiving, the man said, "Order? Order? Now? ... No. Call back after 12. My boss will be here."
At Albertsons, the person who picked up the ISB phone just said it would be a good idea to call back in the afternoon when the bakery manager would be in.
At a Publix store in Saint Augustine, Fla., an associate rattled off the different flavors of fruit pies the bakery offers and said they're "all very good." For the next morning, he suggested his favorite, a pecan ring.
"Our pecan rings are absolutely awesome. You should definitely get a couple of those for the next morning."
Most associates cautioned that pies should be ordered a few days before Thanksgiving. At a Haggen store in St. Marysville, Wash., an associate described a marionberry pie, telling SN's shopper that marionberries are a cross between a boysenberry and a blackberry. Later, an associate in the bakery at Vons/Safeway in Las Vegas gave the mixed berry, no-sugar-added, deep-dish pie a good review.
"Everybody likes it. To me it's a little more sour-tasting [than a pie made with sugar] but I still like it. And our customers tell us they can't tell the difference. We sell a lot of them."
The Haggen associate volunteered, too, that, in addition to traditional dinner rolls, the bakery offers eight-grain rolls and new low-carbohydrate rolls. At Vons/Safeway, the associate recommended soft, cloverleaf rolls, at $1.99 a dozen, to serve with dinner. Obviously putting additional thought into the matter, she said, "Also, we have good French rolls. They'd be good for turkey sandwiches the next day."
The Vons/Safeway staffer recommended jumbo muffins, "maybe blueberry, that's our most popular one," for the next morning.
Muffins, too, were the recommendation from a staffer at an Albertsons unit in San Diego.
"Our muffins are fabulous. We have a great pumpkin one and a banana nut, and we make our own sweet rolls, too."
She also said the store brings in a variety of artisan breads in unique flavors such as fig-anise from a local bakery every morning.
"A nice assortment" of artisan breads, too, was recommended by a staffer at an Acme store in Philadelphia. After offering that information, however, the Acme associate seemed to be in a hurry to get off the phone. Prodded for more information, she named about five varieties of bread and said that all loaves are $3.49. When asked about special items for the next morning, she said, "Yes, we have all that. It's up to you."
One deli clerk who picked up the bakery line at a Kroger unit in in Louisville, Ky., offered an interesting suggestion for breakfast. After describing several varieties of fruit pies and dinner rolls, including a sweet Italian roll that she said the deli serves with its dinners, she was asked if she had any suggestions for what to serve guests the next morning. Without hesitation, she said, "Yes, a nice quiche from our Chef's Shop."
But for selling up, Harris-Teeter and Gristedes take the cake.
At a Harris-Teeter store in Greensboro, N.C., the bakery associate said, "I don't know how many of your guests are staying over, but if there's a lot of them, we can make you up one of our continental breakfast trays. They have several varieties of pastry and also fresh grapes and strawberries. They're $24.99."
The huge, Russian rye bread mentioned earlier was suggested by the bakery-deli manager at a Gristedes unit in midtown Manhattan.
"It's a nice-looking, oval-shaped loaf. If you want to serve it warm, let us know when you order it. That way, we won't totally bake it. You can put it into a 350 degree oven for 15 minutes just before you're ready for dinner. That's a beautiful loaf of bread. Very popular, especially around the holidays. How much is it? It depends on the loaf's weight. It's $2.99 a pound," he said.