Summer's almost here, with months of picnics, barbecues and holidays that are key selling opportunities for disposable plates, cups and flatware.
Their appeal to the convenience-seeker helps sustain sales of disposables year-round, but purchases spike during the summer, as well as Thanksgiving through Christmas.
This summer, retailers' cross-merchandising schemes will focus on new products whose manufacturers say have more uses and are more dependable.
"I think manufacturers have become more unique and have created some attractions to the category, like Hefty's Zoo Pals line," said Todge Armata, owner of single-store Ted's IGA in Hebron, Conn. "And I think the quality has gotten better -- there are no more greasy plates that will fall apart."
Solo Cup, Highland Park, Ill., last year launched SoloGrips, ergonomically designed disposables that are supposed to be easier to hold. Available in a variety of colors, they are deeper than conventional plates so they can hold more food. The 10-inch plate has a side compartment split into two to keep foods separate.
Meanwhile, Pactiv, Lake Forest, Ill., has introduced Hefty Easy Grip Party Cups, which have a slip-resistant grip. Also new from Hefty are Serve 'N Store plates and bowls, whose interlocking rims allow two to be snapped together to become a container.
Other new products are aimed at kids.
Hefty offers Zoo Pals, a line of plates, bowls, flatware and slider bags for kids, featuring 60 different animals. All of the plates feature two separate compartments -- either the ears, feet, wings or eyes -- for keeping foods separate.
This month, Jarden Home Brands, Muncie, Ind., planned to launch Disney-licensed plastic cutlery featuring Winnie the Pooh characters. The company also introduced straws featuring Mickey and Minnie Mouse and Goofy. All products are reusable.
Holidays give retailers the chance to tie in disposables with related foods or seasonal items.
Armata said his store sees a 20% to 50% increase in sales of disposables around the holidays, mostly during the summer. Manufacturers are capitalizing more on special events with new decorative packaging, and he said he creates endcap displays for cross merchandising.
Sales of Jarden Home Brands' products spike 150% to 200% at peak times of year, and cross merchandising, say, spoons with yogurt and combo packs with summer foods or hot dogs, is a great way to boost sales, said Pete Danielsen, senior brand manager.
At peak sales times, St. Louis-based Schnuck Markets features special offers mounted on modular pallet displays, such as free snacks, pumpkin pie and whipped topping with a purchase of disposables. Stores with themes like barbecues or picnics have a special merchandising area, usually in a high-traffic location, which is particularly effective during holidays when consumers are busy, said Steve Fahrig, category manager, non-edible grocery products. "People will pay for a special decorative touch, and they're not as price-conscious when it comes to these items."
About 40% of Schnuck's disposables sales are products designed for holidays and special events. These items tend to sell at the last minute, Fahrig said. "Candles and holiday towels will sell right after Halloween, but plates don't start selling until the second week in December," he said. What's left over usually is marked down 50%, per Schnuck's agreement with the manufacturer, he said.
Jungle Jim's International Market, Fairfield, Ohio, offers disposables as temporarily reduced-price items for nine to 10 months a year, selling them from pallet displays. "We're giving the customers all the giants in the market and the party display items. We try to keep everything on the floor on one or two pallets," said Charlie Van Skaik, grocery manager.
This summer, however, Jungle Jim's planned to promote disposables with a red, white and blue theme. "Whatever we have that we think is seasonal and in the groove, we're going to try to sell as much as we can," Van Skaik said.
Solo Cup encourages retailers to feature special-occasion disposables at the front of the store, on an endcap or in the center of an aisle with related items such as barbecue coals and ketchup. Disposables can also be merchandised from stack-pack displays with strong graphics and colors. "They are eye-appealing to catch customers as they walk by and realize they need these products," said Beth Dahlke, senior vice president of marketing, Solo Cup.
Beyond the seasonal spikes, disposables for everyday use drive sales in the category. At Ted's IGA, for example, white paper plates constitute about 75% of sales in the summer and 50% of sales around Thanksgiving and Christmas, Armata said.
The biggest consumer group of disposables consists of single moms, households with kids, working adults and upper-income, middle-aged couples, Danielsen said. Consumers look for price, stability, smooth surfaces, quantity and assortment, he said.
The primary disposables buyers are women aged 25 to 48, said Solo's Dahkle, although more college kids are finding disposables suit their hectic lifestyles.
Private label commands a sizable share of the category.
In 2004, store brands captured 44.2% of the $143.9 million market -- an increase of 2.7% over 2003. Private-label disposables represented 54% of unit sales, a growth of 3.2% over the prior year. The share varies by retailer, of course; at Schnuck Markets, 60% of disposable sales are in private label, Fahrig said.
Most store-brand disposables are made by the same companies that manufacture national brands. At Jarden, private label represents half its straws and cutlery business. "Most stores carry their brand and our brand side-by-side, and they can promote each at different times of the year," Danielsen said.
Manufacturers offer different tiers of products to satisfy consumers' varied needs, with recent introductions focusing on the premium end.
"There also are various levels [of disposables], which means people can use different types of products, and manufacturers are doing a good job of attracting people from across the board," said Ted's IGA's Armata.
The basic, heavy-duty line designed for everyday use is Jarden Home Brands' best-seller, accounting for 70% of sales in 2003 (25% of sales were in the mid-tier and 5%, its top-tier Signature Series). Its mid-tier, full-size clear dinnerware is stronger and designed for events like graduations and birthday parties.
For high-end events, the company last year launched its Signature Series, which features one stockkeeping unit that mimics real steel flatware, Danielsen said. The flatware is titanium-colored, he said, "so it goes with everything, and customers don't need to buy new plates." The 24-count pack, which retails for $2.99, is the most popular, although sales of the 48-count package are growing, he said.
Premium items have been driving disposables sales at Schnuck Markets for the past six to nine months, said Fahrig. Overall, the chain's sales in the category have been growing at an annual rate of 2% to 3% a year, he said. "It's probably a cost-value thing," Fahrig said. "People are willing to pay for a product that delivers; they don't want their plates falling apart at a function."