Though it may not be the first thing that comes to mind for back-to-school promotions, the dairy department has its share of merchandising opportunities to choose from at this time of year.
For some retailers, this means focusing more on kid-sized dairy items that will fit inside a lunch box or serve as a suitable after-school snack or beverage.
Retailers contacted by SN mentioned individually wrapped string cheese, small bottles of chilled juice drinks, multipacks of flavored yogurts and chilled, individual-serving- size packages of gelatin and pudding as good candidates for back-to-school promotions.
Demoulas Supermarkets, Tewksbury, Mass., is promoting three of these items -- individually wrapped mozzarella cheese sticks, small bottles of Sunny Delight and ready-to-eat individual-serving puddings -- during the back-to-school period, said Jack Demoulas, dairy buyer.
"We will hit all of the dairy categories during the back-to-school period. We will feature a variety of items because different things attract different people."
Promotions start Aug. 26 and continue for another three weeks. The key to success with dairy during this period is to create a good-sized, attractive display and feature the items at a fair price, Demoulas said.
Several retailers explained that although they always try to market dairy products to kids, the back-to-school season enables them to emphasize items that are convenient, portable or fun -- and for prices parents appreciate.
"We promote dairy year-round, but there are certain key items we focus on for back-to-school," said Pat Brooks, director of frozen, dairy and deli at Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif.
Based on the positive consumer response to coupon books offered during the course of last year, Save Mart has a back-to-school coupon book featuring specials on a variety of items. Among the dairy items in the coupon book are a 3-pound package of private-label processed cheese, individually wrapped string cheese, and national-brand sliced cheese singles, Brooks said.
"To my knowledge this is the first time we have done a coupon book for back-to-school. We have found it to be an excellent marketing tool for us as a vehicle to drive sales and volume. The coupon redemption rate is pretty high," Brooks said.
The coupon book promotion is supported with in-store signage posted on the shelves, she said.
Back-to-school promotions begin well before the year's first school bell rings, she noted.
"[School-related promotions] pick up again around Aug. 1. In our July 31 ad we featured yogurt, chilled ready-to-eat Swiss Miss pudding and chilled Jell-O gelatin. Those items are continually promoted on a rotating basis," Brooks said.
Strack & Van Til, Highland, Ind., which operates 11 stores under different names and formats, is advertising individually wrapped string cheese in its back-to-school ads, according to John Schoon, advertising director.
"String cheese is a desirable item to promote. Kids like it. Putting it in our ad often means an additional display at store level," Schoon said.
With or without advertising campaigns, dairy sales increase slightly at Harris Teeter during the back-to-school season, according to Ruth Kinzey, corporate communications manager for the Matthews, N.C., chain.
"Those products that rise in popularity pertain to breakfast or are likely to be used in school lunches. These include milk, juice, eggs, sliced cheese, yogurt and individual serving sizes of [ready-to-eat] gelatin," she said.
Harris Teeter, which operates 140 stores, does not conduct a "big" dairy promotion for back-to-school, Kinzey said.
Duane Proulx, dairy buyer at Bashas', Chandler, Ariz., also said that back-to-school is an important time for dairy even without grand-scale promotions.
"The customer base has increased because people have come back from vacation. We will see a return to volume from the summer doldrums," Proulx said.
He noted that there are supply problems associated with promotions at this time of year.
"If anything, back-to-school puts a strain on distribution of dairy because of the school lunch program. The dairies are trying to meet the schools' needs," he said.
Bashas' has a special display promotion of string cheese developed in cooperation with a supplier. A clear plastic, half moon-shaped shelf extender will be mounted above the cheese section from mid-August through mid-September, Proulx said.
This year the chain is putting increased emphasis on string cheese for back-to-school. A promotional allowance will be reflected in the shelf price, he said.
Other items to receive attention during this time include ready-to-serve gelatin desserts and pudding, and multipacks of yogurt, he said.
Lou Scaduto Jr., who handles dairy, frozen food and bakery at Food Circus Supermarkets, Middletown, N.J., said back-to-school is an important time of year for dairy.
"It does not have quite the zest or magnitude of a major holiday, but we do look to promote chilled, ready-to-eat puddings and gelatins, packaged-lunch combinations, cheese and kid's packs of yogurt.
"In this area, school starts Sept. 3, so our advertising will go into effect Aug. 25, and will push through September. Not every item will be advertised every week, but maybe every other week," he said.
Supplier cooperation plays a big role in these promotions, Scaduto added. "Kraft is our biggest dairy supplier. They have point-of-purchase signage we can display as headers on the dairy case, with messages about having a nutritious lunch for back-to-school."
At Food Circus, which operates 12 Food Town supermarkets, dairy products to receive the most promotional support for back-to-school will be ready-to-eat gelatin and pudding and packaged-lunch combinations, which are merchandised in the dairy instead of deli or meat departments, Scaduto said.
"Price reductions to us were deeper this year for some items. Because of the pricing, this year distribution of some of the dairy items to our stores is greater, meaning the stores are getting more product in than last year for this promotion period."
On Sept. 15, the 12 Food Town stores will advertise a six pack of chilled ready-to-eat pudding for $1.49, which is half the regular retail price, he said.
"That reflects only an 8% gross profit, but we expect to get a lot of thrust off that. We will also run string cheese at half price at the same time."
Four to five "A" items will rotate on ad throughout September, he added.
Healthy and low-fat products are not stressed as much at this time of year as at other times, retailers told SN. "Interest in low-fat and healthy dairy food is minimal. We really have to focus on what the kids will eat," said Schoon of Strack & Van Til.
"Healthy and-low fat products tend to be more important to customers in the summer rather than at back-to-school time," said Kinzey of Harris Teeter.
"Parents are looking for nutritious lunch ideas for the kids, but it seems most dairy items contain fat -- pudding is not really low-fat, not all yogurt is nonfat. The low-fat factor may not be quite as important during back-to-school as at other times of the year," said Scaduto of Food Circus.
"We find that the low-fat varieties of Lunchables are the slowest movers for us."
At Bashas', however, customers tend to focus on healthy or low-fat items all year, and back-to-school is no exception, according to Proulx. Low-fat and nonfat yogurt are promoted every other week, and Proulx said he may consider running ads that specifically identify yogurt as ideal for school lunches or after-school snacks.