It looks like it's going to be another rough winter, and retailers are expecting sales of deicing salts to be hot.
The brutal season last year caught consumers and retail buyers off guard, with out-of-stocks leaving both out in the cold. This time around, supermarkets are likely to be better prepared, said buyers and distributors in interviews with SN during the last few weeks.
To make sure they've got the salt to deal with demand this year, retailers said they have:
Ordered larger amounts of salt and other deicing products.
Taken deliveries earlier and placed deicing products on the sales floor earlier than usual.
Begun running advertisements way before the first flakes hit the ground, in some cases attempting to drive sales with "remember last winter" messages.
Manufacturers are telling retailers that this winter's salt supply should easily meet demand. But chains are taking precautions just the same to make sure they're ready for any early storms that could send
shoppers running to their stores.
"The Farmer's Almanac is calling for a bad winter," said David Herriman, vice president of grocery operations at Giant Food, Landover, Md. "To be prepared, we are stocking our stores better and we have backup stock in our warehouses earlier."
"Last year, we saw severe out-of-stocks, and as a result we have tripled our orders for deicing salts for this winter," said Bob Hunt, director of general merchandising at Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y.
"We expect sales to be brisk and, because a bad winter is predicted, we bought plenty of deicing salts," said Jan Winn, a director at Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass.
"We've had no word of shortages, but we have two trucks of product in our warehouse as a backup because last year we suffered some moderate out-of-stocks and we certainly scrambled to get more product," Winn said.
"We have put the salt out earlier this year than last year, but the sales really depend on the severity of the winter," said Nick Wedberg, vice president and grocery buyer at Plumb's, Muskegon, Mich.
"When you buy salt in advance, the prices are more reasonable, but when you buy it during a shortage, the prices are more. So we're better prepared for it this year," said William Vitulli, vice president of government and community relations at A&P, Montvale, N.J. "Invariably, you are going to have some spot shortages. Last year was so bad that none of the retailers could keep up with it."
Vitulli said in addition to buying new supplies, A&P also is merchandising salt left over from last spring. "We always have it available, but whatever is left over from the previous season we bring it up into the sales area as soon as it starts to look threatening outside," he said.
One distributor said chains in his market have been snatching up salt earlier, and that by the end of this month his sales will have already equaled all of his sales of the 1993 to 1994 season.
"The supermarkets are going to break with their ads in November, and traditionally they don't break until late December. We have set up ads already with all of the majors in New York," said Richard H. Hagmann, a co-owner of Northeast Consolidated Charcoal Co., Harrison, N.J. Northeast Consolidated is a distributor of charcoal and salt products, including Halite and its Picnic brand, and counts Pathmark, ShopRite, Foodtown, Waldbaum's, King Kullen, Kings Super Markets, hardware stores and garden centers among its customers, Hagmann said.
The Salt Institute, Alexandria, Va., confirmed that retailers in many part of the country have been stocking up on salt earlier this year than in years past to avert any shortages when the bad weather hits.
"We've seen a lot of retailers increase their abilities to store salt on-site instead of waiting until they run out to order," said Andy Briscoe, director of public policy. He added that the industry has increased storage capacity and does not anticipate major supply problems.
"The Salt Institute suggests you have 100% of your estimated needs under shed before the first snowfall, and the same thing could apply to homeowners and retailers. If they are going to use salt this winter, they should figure out what their estimated needs are and get it in stock or in warehouse before the first snowfall. Based on what we're seeing, we find that effort is occurring," Briscoe said.
Dick Salmon, senior vice president at Melmarkets Inc., Garden City, N.Y., said he sent a trailer-load of rock salt -- about 2,500 packages -- to his stores the last week of October, at least a month earlier than usual.
"We didn't tie up any fortune in money, and we certainly want to be prepared because snow shovels, ice salts and rock salts are the types of things that there isn't enough of to go around when people want them. We want to have it in early and be ready. If a storm does happen, we'll be first on line," he explained.
Mort McKillop, grocery buyer at G&R Felpausch Co., Hastings, Mich., said Felpausch will be bringing salt into its own warehouse instead of having it delivered through the warehouse of cooperative wholesaler Spartan Stores, as it did last winter.
"We're planning on merchandising it a lot stronger this year, and making sure that we have product available at all times, and more on hand so that we do not run out during critical periods," McKillop said. But should a shortage develop, he would merchandise Morton water softener salt as a deicer product, he added.
Last year, salt sales surged as the storms blew and the roads and sidewalks froze over.
During the four-week period ended Jan. 8, 1994, supermarket thawing salt sales shot up 79.3% to $4.5 million; and during the wicked four weeks ending Feb. 5, 1994, sales skyrocketed 111.2% to almost $6.3 million, according to Nielsen North America, Northbrook, Ill.
For the 52-week period ended June 11, 1994, the thawing salt category had supermarket sales of $18.7 million, an increase of 28.1% over the previous year, scanning data shows.
The blizzards left many a retailer slipping and sliding in desperate attempts to grab hold of more deicing products. In a classic catch-22 scenario, tractor trailers couldn't make salt deliveries because they couldn't traverse ice-covered interstate highways, and stores were skating on thin ice trying to meet demand.
"Last winter, no manufacturer could respond quick enough to meet the demand, with all of the ice storms we had," said Herriman of Giant Food.
Unable to buy traditional deicing salts, consumers resorted to snatching up any other items that would melt ice or increase traction. Many retailers said they saw sales of table salt, water softener salt and even cat litter climb as a result.
So far, consumers don't appear to have been as diligent as many retailers in getting ready for the weather. Chains are not seeing significant early sales.
"People haven't been buying the salts yet," said Giant Food's Herriman.
"We find there has been little or no consumer demand for the product yet. Most consumers appear to be driven by need instead of expectation," Hunt of Price Chopper said.
"As people see the salts, they will take up some. But like with everything, they're always a day late and a dollar short," said Salmon of Melmarkets. Of course, his comments were made when his market was engulfed in still-balmy 60-degree weather.
"The customers wait until it snows and then they come in the day of the snowstorm and say, 'You don't have any rock salt?' "
Some retailers apparently are not content to sit on their salt piles quietly, waiting for consumers to panic. They said they will use a variety of means to promote consumer stockpiling of deicing products.
"We are going to be running an ad for stocking up on winter items on Nov. 13 that will have salt and cat litter in it, along with wild bird food, antifreeze, windshield washer fluid, ice scrapers and all of those related things," said Herriman of Giant Food.
"We'll be merchandising it on the floor, stacked in wings, with a full variety available for anyone to pick from," said Salmon of Melmarkets.
In addition to displays, Melmarkets uses good old-fashioned fear to move product.
"If snow is expected, all of our stores will get a call from headquarters telling them to announce over the P.A. system, 'While you're in the store, be sure to pick up an extra loaf of bread and a bottle of milk because of the expected snow.' We use the same tactic with the rock salt, too. Once that is repeated a few times during the day, the word goes out in the neighborhood and the place becomes packed. We always trade on that if we can. The minute there is some announcement on the air, sales go up," he explained.
Other retailers said they do not anticipate the need to advertise their deicing products.
"We never advertise salts," said Wedberg of Plumb's. "It is one of those things that customers have to have, and they will pick it up anyway." Wedberg added that Plumb's merchandises its salts in space allocated to charcoal during the summer months.
Big Y does not advertise or promote deicing salts either, although the chain does give the category some special merchandising emphasis during snow and ice storms, according to Winn.
"We are merchandising the deicing products in the seasonal sections of our stores on a normal basis. And if we have a bad winter, such as last year, we'll just drop a pallet down for customer purchasing ease," she said.
Hunt said Price Chopper will not promote the category in ads, but will instead rely on the combination of demand and bulk display for sell-through.
"The product is bulk-stacked in either the 'seasonal aisle' or front-entry promotional display area of the store," Hunt explained. "We find the brand name is not particularly important. What is important is the formulation of the product and its availability to the consumer at times of peak demand. Our best-selling product has been the Quick Joe brand of calcium chloride compound."
Some retailers said they are ordering and merchandising some of their deicing products based on new product innovations, such as how environmentally friendly they are.
"We may advertise that some of the products are environmentally safe for driveways and sidewalks. We will promote the little round pellets of salt more this year, rather than the actual rock salt, because the former is better for the environment," said Mc-Kellop of Felpausch.
"Due to environmental concerns, we also bought an ice and snow melter that does not harm grass or other vegetation or sidewalks as does Halite," said Winn of Big Y.
Despite the anticipated increase in demand, and some glitches in the production pipelines of some deicing products, manufacturers told SN that pricing is expected to remain steady through the season.
"We do not contemplate any shortages for ourselves, and as we understand it, all of our competitors feel the same way," said Pat St. Clair, supervisor of internal communications for Morton International Salt Co., Chicago.
Sales have been brisk at Akzo Nobel Salt, Clarks Summit, Pa., the nation's largest producer of deicing salts, and supplies are up to the challenge, said a company official.
"We have more than an adequate supply of Diamond Crystal and Halite, and we have seen a dramatic increase in sales over the last 60 days," said Mary Kay Warner, public relations manager.