GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Gourmet chocolate, spiked with intense flavors and -- one can hope -- health benefits, is a hot trend that hasn't been lost on supermarkets.
Snubbing low-carb and sugar-free candies, they promoted upscale chocolates in the weeks leading up to Valentine's Day, along with romantic meal solutions and nonfood gift items. Retailers built elaborate Valentine's departments, some stretching 70 feet, which they supported with smaller displays throughout their stores.
At Meijer, here, gone were the low-carb and sugar-free selections that had dominated displays in recent years.
Meijer dedicated one side of an aisle in many of its stores to Valentine's merchandise: bagged candy, cellophane-wrapped gift baskets with teddy bears and candy, candy-filled mugs, chocolate-covered fortune cookies, heart-themed tins containing three flavors of popcorn, Pillsbury Valentine's cake mix, and pink-and-white iced sugar cookies from the in-store bakery.
Packages of treat bags with heart-shaped garland wire were sprinkled throughout the aisle. Signs reading "Calling all Cupids" hung from the top shelf.
A Valentine's Day circular promoted Hershey's Pot of Gold, Ferrero Rocher Valentine heart packs and bulk Valentine's candy alongside king crab legs for $9.99 a pound; buy-one, get-two-free deals on 16-ounce bags of Meijer-brand shrimp; beef tenderloin steak for $9.99 per pound; brie cheese; Dare Breton crackers; St. Julian non-alcoholic sparkling juices; and French baguettes.
"Supermarkets are creating dedicated spaces that integrate all kinds of Valentine's Day items, whether it's cupcakes with red and pink sprinkles, bagged candy, stuffed animals or gourmet chocolates and champagne," said Diane Garber, president, In Sight Communications, Buffalo Grove, Ill. "They're also becoming more tasteful, offering a better assortment of general merchandise instead of a simple stuffed [animal] and a few bags of Valentine's candy."
Fresh Encounter in Finlay, Ohio, sought to differentiate itself by carrying upscale hand-painted chocolates from Maramor Chocolates of Columbus, Ohio, in addition to standard fare like cupcakes with heart-shaped sprinkles, bagged candy and stuffed animals.
"Grocers are definitely getting more tasteful with a better assortment of general merchandise, but we're also making specialty chocolates a strong focus," said Eric Anderson, vice president of marketing. Such items enable the store to better compete with other retailers, he said.
Others used convenience to compete for Valentine's shopping trips.
Syracuse, N.Y.-based Penn Traffic Co. planned to designate one checkout lane in each store "Lover's Lane" on Feb. 13 and 14, so last-minute shoppers could get in and out of stores quickly. The lane would be near the Valentine's Day section and feature a balloon arch at its entrance, chain spokesman Tim Seidel said.
"Lover's Lane" was designed to help the chain compete with the ease of shopping offered by other retail outlets, like drug stores, with their smaller stores and shorter lines, he said.
In the aisle, plush toys that are scented or dance, sing or light up were popular with customers.
"Our customers have really taken to things that don't just sit on the shelf," Seidel said.
Meat, deli and bakery departments had their own promotions, including prime rib and surf-and-turf specials, and "Box of Roses" cakes decorated with flowers. The chain planned to deliver the special cakes to radio stations in its trade area to promote its offerings.
- Chocolate eaters consume an average of 7.8 pieces per month, but premium chocolate consumers eat an average of 8.8 pieces per month.
- New gourmet chocolate product introductions totaled 187 in 2004, compared with 107 no/low-carb/sugar and 99 natural/organic chocolate launches.
- Dark chocolate introductions accounted for 91; milk chocolate, 104.
- Annual retail sales growth of gourmet chocolate has been about 20% since 2001, vs. all chocolate's annual growth rate of about 4%.
- More than eight in 10 male respondents said they have given premium chocolate for Valentine's Day.
- The two age groups most likely to give premium chocolate as a gift for Valentine's Day are 18-34 and 45-54.