One-stop shopping marked this year's Passover season, as chains touted their stores as holiday destinations by promoting broader ranges of kosher groceries.
Price has always been a linchpin of the traditionally low-margin Passover season, grocery buyers and merchandisers told SN. But this year, as in recent years, customers continued to demand more selection and showed they were willing to seek it out. "If people walk into a store and see just 12-feet of goods on two aisle endcaps, they're going to look someplace else," said Dick Salmon, senior vice president of Melmarkets Foodtown, Garden City, N.Y.
As it has done for years, Melmarkets assembled special Passover "stores" inside its superstores. The 2,000-square-foot sections consisted of an emptied stockroom or other area filled with kosher items neatly stacked in lines or stored in warehouse racks. An aisle leading to the space was also stocked with foods, beverages and general merchandise that customers might have needed for the holiday.
"So they're sort of in a little Passover department store," Salmon said.
Products included staple brands like Manischewitz and Streit's, goods from local vendors, imports from Israel, and a selection of harder-to-find foods for Hasidic and Orthodox Jews, he said. Candies and desserts -- including glazed fruit, chocolates, macaroons and cakes -- also were displayed in the deli department to tie in with meat.
In the aisle leading toward the Passover store were non-food items like aluminum foil, plastic wrap and utensils, napkins and foil pans. "There are many houseware items that are relevant to this setup," Salmon said, noting that general merchandise is a solid tie-in and yields higher margins than the kosher foods.
Melmarkets Foodtown carried 300 more stockkeeping units of Passover goods than its competitors, Salmon said. He estimated Passover sales were up 22% this year. The chain prepared stores for the holiday eight to nine weeks in advance, and the Passover stores stayed open for six weeks during the season. A full-page ad listing the top 60 kosher items was run every day for four weeks before Passover, he added.
Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y., also aimed to surround Passover shoppers with kosher items, setting up back ends and seasonal aisles in its smaller stores and entire sections in its larger locations, said Mona Golub, category manager for ethnic and cultural foods.
"In our bigger stores, we tend to have alcoves; so no matter which way you look, you're looking at Passover products. It's almost like a store within a store," she said. Exterior and interior signage alerted customers to the products and directed them to the sections, she added.
The chain had about 50 new products this year, including Haddar distilled light vinegar, instant cup soups from Manischewitz and Streit's, Bartons candies and Osem matzohs, Golub said. "We try to stay on top of the latest trends because we know we've got a following," she explained.
Matzoh and gefilte fish were the best sellers this year, followed by borscht, macaroons, cookies and soup, Golub said. To avoid getting stuck with a load of excess kosher goods -- something buyers termed a major Passover pitfall -- Price Chopper planned sales as the season neared an end. "The last mode of Passover with mark-down and clearance is always critical," she said. "We generally mark down the last 5% of total sales."
Price Chopper started its Passover merchandising March 6, Golub said. Three weeks before the holiday, four full-page ads were run in local Jewish publications and smaller strip ads were run in general media to promote the chain's Passover sections, she said. This year, the chain put more into its Passover effort, Golub noted. "It was more extensive. We try to grow the program each year," she said. Based on this year's Passover sales, stores with higher potential will be given more product for next year, she added. "We kind of grow a program for them."
Similarly, Valu Food, Baltimore, focused its Passover merchandising on higher-potential stores. All stores set aside space for Passover products, but the chain's locations in Randallstown and Severna Park, Md. -- which have larger Jewish populations -- featured a much wider array of kosher foods, said Charles Alves, vice president of sales.
"We put together a whole Passover program," Alves said. "We took about 48-feet of gondola space and merchandised it as a special Passover section."
The Randallstown and Severna Park stores, in fact, allotted about 30% more space for Passover goods than last year, he said. "We had over 300 items," he explained. "Those two particular stores last year did such a great job and we had such a good response from customers that we decided to do more this year."
Though no numbers were available, overall Passover sales were "considerably higher" this year,
Alves said. Kosher grocery sales were about the same as last year's, but kosher chicken and turkey sales, which were disappointing last year, surged this year, he noted.
A holiday circular and matzoh giveaway coupon helped spur store traffic, he said. Holiday promotions and merchandising began March 22. "What we usually do is break with non-perishables four weeks in advance and with perishables about a week ahead," he said.
Passover grocery sales and store traffic resembled 1994 levels at Weis Markets Inc., Sunbury, Pa., according to Walter Bruce, vice president of private labels, who also handles some specialty food merchandising for the chain. "I think overall for us I find [Passover sales] to be pretty steady," he said.
Weis did not add any new brands this year, Bruce said. However, he noted, Manischewitz buttressed its line with a number of new kosher items, including angel food mix, two kinds of presweetened breakfast cereal, new egg noodles and more varieties of cookies, such as rocky road and marshmallow cream.
"It seemed like there were some new, interesting items this year that I know will be back next year. And we'll order them more heavily," he said. "It's the first time I've seen anything new in this category in the 10 years I've been merchandising it. It makes it more interesting for the person trying to design a [kosher] menu."
Weis stores had separate areas for Passover groceries -- either an aisle or part of an aisle, with signage and shelf paper -- but the size of the holiday section depended on the market in the chain's Mid-Atlantic trade area, Bruce said.
"It was very broad in the number of items in Baltimore; it was more competitive price-wise in Allentown [Pa.] and Harrisburg [Pa.]," he explained.
Merchandising started about five weeks before Passover, the chain's usual practice, Bruce said. "We ran an ad in each of the three major markets for us with about seven different items on it," he said. An ad also was run in a Jewish newspaper in Harrisburg, he added.
Only a small amount of goods were left over this year, Bruce said. "Really, it was over before it began. I was glad to hear there really wasn't a whole lot [of excess product]."
Several other chains also pushed one-stop grocery shopping in Passover newspaper ads.
For example, SuperFoodtown in Oakhurst, N.J., a store run by Middletown, N.J.-based Food Circus Supermarkets, advertised a separate Passover store as offering "one-stop Passover shopping," the "largest selection" and "the only place to shop for your Passover holiday needs."
The store, formerly a 7,500-square-foot drugstore adjacent to the supermarket, featured 192 running feet of grocery aisles, which was "double or triple" of the grocery space the Passover store had last year, said Mark Azzolina, grocery merchandiser for Food Circus. The frozen food section also was expanded, he added.
Kroger billed itself as the "answer" for Passover shopping in a question-and-answer ad in an Atlanta newspaper. The ad also featured a coupon for a free 1-pound box of Manischewitz matzohs with a $10 purchase.
Stop & Shop circulated a Passover coupon book offering savings of 15 cents to 50 cents on a wide range of brand-name kosher groceries and related items from Coca Cola, Sanka, Maxwell House, Mott's, Domino, Wesson, Planters, Sunsweet and Sun-Maid.