Supermarket advertising is shifting away from the realm of price specials and coupons -- and becoming more colorful and exciting.
A recent wave of advertising -- whether print, television or Internet -- is also bolstering the store's image as a retailer and a citizen of the community. These ads are reading more like invitations to shop -- with special events and holiday promotions, recipes, and other messages designed to create excitement. For Web sites, retailers have an almost limitless capacity to offer information -- and the flexibility to change, add or update that information in mere minutes.
Regardless of the medium, however, retailers seem to be putting more effort into developing their own brand image through special events and tie-ins to local and community activities, all in a manner that is decidedly "customer-centric."
"People who enjoy shopping in supermarkets will spend 20% more than others," said Ruth Raphel, a partner at Raphel Marketing, an Atlantic City, N.J.-based advertising agency. "Stores that succeed have an excitement about them.
"[Retailers] realize they have to stand out," Raphel said. "They are branding themselves better and addressing their customers more. They are really getting away from price and item and into addressing the customer."
Richard Klein, principal at Fogarty Klein & Partners, a Houston-based advertising firm whose clients include Randalls Food Markets and Tom Thumb, said, "Supermarkets are finally getting the message that consumers want more than price -- and they want more than just a nice big store.
"Supermarkets, particularly the independents, are giving their customers more than just special discounts, they are giving them special treatment," Klein said, "and consumers are repaying all this with loyalty."
Doug Highland, assistant manager for the Sixth Street Food Stores unit in Hays, Kan., said that creating an enjoyable shopping experience is crucial in the current competitive climate.
"Fun is exceptionally important," he said. "The perfect example is Budweiser and their frogs.
"When you've got something different, it piques customers' interests," he added. "All of a sudden, they have two or three things in their cart they weren't intending on buying when they came in the store."
Highland told SN that North Platte, Neb.-based Sixth Street Food Stores is already planning events in conjunction with a new museum set to open next year in the vicinity of the store. Though he did not disclose plans, Highland said the museum opening is a significant event for the community -- which the supermarket sought to commemorate with well-thought-out plans.
In the past, Sixth Street Food Stores ran such creative campaigns as promoting peanuts around a fictitious giant squirrel that was on the loose. "We have found that the crazier and more creative you get, the more it adds to sales," said Highland. The store puts on roughly 10 to 15 event displays every year.
At this year's Creative Choice Awards, held at the annual National Grocers Association convention in Las Vegas, and co-sponsored by Food Distributors International, supermarket operators were recognized for creative and effective advertising in about 30 categories.
Sixth Street, which won three previous Creative Choice Awards, took this year's award for Best Grocery Merchandising event for its 1997 Super Bowl promotion. The centerpiece of the campaign, literally, was a football stadium constructed in the middle of the store using Pepsi, Frito-Lay and Kraft products.
The promotion was rounded out with newspaper ads, in-store demos, T-shirt giveaways, and videos of previous Super Bowls to generate excitement in the week leading up to the big game. As a result, Pepsi sales were up $2,650, or 29%, compared with the same week in the prior year, store officials said.
Events like the Super Bowl, and even minor holidays like Valentine's Day, can be a great starting point for successful merchandising events. "Holidays are a must," Raphel said. But Mike Allison, creative manager for Raley's Supermarkets & Drug Centers, West Sacramento, Calif., said running too many special events or promotions outside the normal holiday line-up might take away from their effectiveness.
"We do things on a store-by-store level too," Allison said, explaining that store managers at Raley's frequently have enough freedom to run small events for their local communities. The advantage of that flexibility is that they can tailor the events to the specific wants and characteristics of each community. Once, an entire store was transformed into a 1950s motif, Allison said.
But although these changes have occurred in supermarket promotions, special events and merchandising events, changes have been slower to happen in traditional advertising forms, particularly print media, according to Klein of Fogarty Klein & Partners.
"The one area that hasn't really changed is the advertising itself," he said. "Other retailers around the country are changing their print advertising and their inserts, but supermarket ads basically haven't changed in years."
The news isn't all bad, however, and Klein added that "you can definitely see the beginning of change in the business," due largely to smaller retailers that are leading the way in advertising innovation within the industry.
Klein said smaller retailers have been doing a better job in terms of digital imaging, digital photography and use of color in their print advertising. Moreover, these retailers "are much more imaginative and oriented toward the consumer as opposed to filling the same old boxes up with the same old thing because the manufacturers are paying for it." This is also true in terms of other forms of advertising, including TV and radio broadcasting, according to Klein.
Others interviewed by SN expressed the opinion that larger retailers are frequently disadvantaged when it comes to reaching consumers with their advertising, because they are less able to be in touch with the immediate communities.
"The community part is one of the more important chords you can strike in your business," said Highland of Sixth Street.
Jim Garrison, director of accounts for Fleming Co.'s corporate advertising assigned to Piggly Wiggly Co., Memphis, Tenn., also stated that larger chains are disadvantaged when it comes to community involvement.
One of Piggly Wiggly's assets, he commented, is that each store is independently owned and operated. This, according to Garrison, gives Piggly Wiggly "a different approach and mind-set than larger chains.
"There are consumers that don't want larger supermarkets," Garrison told SN, explaining that smaller stores with a community feel are becoming more and more popular.
Garrison, along with Debbie Underwood, director of marketing for Piggly Wiggly, said the company is taking advantage of its community-oriented and customer-based image and heritage through its recent marketing campaign titled "Down home, down the street." The campaign focuses on such themes as friendly service and convenience, as well as pushing a heavy community feel through TV, print, radio and point-of-purchase advertising. Piggly Wiggly plans to run the campaign into 1999, according to Underwood.
Also as part of its advertising and promotional strategy, Piggly Wiggly plans to make use of its mascot, Mr. Pig, much more than it has in the past. In a recently filmed TV commercial, according to Underwood, Mr. Pig appears in animated form at the end of the commercial. Moreover, the company is redesigning the Mr. Pig costume and establishing a network of performers so that Mr. Pig will be acted out in a consistent manner. Mr. Pig will also have the privilege of riding around on the 45-foot custom-made Piggly Wiggly bus to different community and store-sponsored events, where he will interact with kids and hand out goodies.
"We are beginning to recognize more and more every day how unique Piggly Wiggly is," Garrison said. "Kids can't say the name Piggly Wiggly without smiling, and all that is very powerful, to have such a positive recognition."
Raley's is another supermarket taking advantage of being community-oriented in its advertising.
"I wouldn't call it a trend; it's been a philosophy at Raley's," said Mike Allison of Raley's. "There's an advantage to being a hometown, homegrown type of company."
Allison, along with Margaret Lombard, media manager for Raley's, told SN that in the future Raley's advertising campaign will continue to focus on "the quality of meat and produce and on the quality of our service," though they would not comment about any specific upcoming plans.
In supermarket advertising, it is important to focus on one's strengths, Lombard told SN. "We think [customer service] is one of our real strengths."
Raley's, whose advertising is done almost entirely in-house, was one of the few companies to win in two separate categories at the Creative Choice Awards this year, hauling in awards for best black-and-white ad and for best TV commercial.
In the best black-and-white ad category, Raley's won for an image of a person with a paper bag over his head, with the caption, "Not voting is like going through life with a bag over your head." The ad, according to Allison, was aimed at getting people to vote without telling them how to vote.
"We recognize that our customers are the reason we exist," Allison said, commenting on the advantages of such community-based activity. "It's important to make people feel good and make them feel you are in touch and know what they're about."
In the past, community-based events at Raley's included the Gold Rush Classic Golf Tournament, and the Food for Families program, which allows customers to make donations to help feed hungry people, ensuring them that 100% of the money donated goes directly to the cause.
But focusing on the consumer means more than just community, industry veterans told SN -- it means focusing in on the things that consumers are looking for in their supermarkets beyond just price and value. Good service is one of the most important of these categories, they said.
"We wanted to take a different approach," Lombard said of the humorous customer-service-oriented TV spot that won the best TV-commercial award at this year's Creative Choice Awards.
In the spot, Raley's employees are put through a mock boot-camp, where they are trained to be friendly to customers. Raley's broadcast plan aims at having commercials on the air 22 to 26 weeks a year.
Although Lombard did say that humor is a trend in advertising, she also pointed out that there is a fine line between ads whose only appeal is humor and ads that are humorous but also have a clear message about a product. The Raley's commercial, she said, has both.
"[The commercial] takes a light-hearted approach that came from not over-promising," she pointed out.
The use of television points to another recent trend in advertising -- the move away from print media toward broadcast and electronic media.
In a climate where supermarkets are focusing in on the consumer, the attempt to better convey the quality and service of the shopping experience has led to greater use of television, because of its ability to bring things to life, according to Lombard.
And if television is one tool being used to deliver the store experience, the Internet is being used to create another experience altogether.
"We feel that we are receiving more and more comments every day -- you can really see it growing," said Joanne Gage, vice president of consumer and marketing services at Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y., about the Internet and its usefulness. "I can't tell you how much e-mail we receive about this."
One advantage of the Internet, said Gage, is its flexibility.
"You put something out and you can take it off immediately," she said. "It's a great test and it doesn't have to stay out there."
Gage said that this ability to take things off the Internet quickly was particularly important for promotions that could either be too successful or not successful enough. The Price Chopper site is updated very frequently, "sometimes even daily," according to Gage.
The Price Chopper Web site, developed and maintained by the chain's consumer and marketing services department, aims to enhance the customer's shopping experience by creating an on-line community of shoppers and by providing a resource for information and services.
With advantages, however, new challenges and difficulties also pop up, Gage said. One such difficulty is the need to answer all the comments and e-mail generated by Web surfers. When asked about possible future directions or uses for its site, Gage did not share specific plans or ideas, saying only that there is going to be "more of everything."
"We are still in the process of building the site," she said, "but the most important thing for us is to just keep it fresh and to keep people coming back." The future content of the site will also be shaped by consumer feedback, which the company receives via its feedback forms that are available on the site, according to Gage.
Price Chopper has had a Web site for roughly two years now, but only recently has the company brought on a full-time Web master, Gage said.
Price Chopper's site, which won the award for Best Web Site at the Creative Choice Awards, offers its users general information, on-line promotions, services (such as signing up for loyalty cards), employment opportunities and ordering options. Prior to Mother's Day and Father's Day, for example, customers were able to order food platters on-line. At Easter, the supermarket ran an on-line coloring contest.
But even with new developments, traditional price and item print ads still play an important role in supermarket promotions, with new design and color techniques giving them more punch.