ROCHESTER, Mich. -- Theme merchandising can boost bakery sales significantly, increase profits and generally perk things up in the in-store bakery.
That's why Carl Richardson, an industry consultant based here, has been a long-time proponent of aggressive theme merchandising.
Richardson was director of bakery operations for Farmer Jack Supermarkets, a Detroit-based division of A&P, Montvale, N.J. He now serves on the board of the Retailer's Bakery Association, Laurel, Md., and heads the RBA's National Paczki Committee, which has created a successful and growing themed-promotion phenomenon known as National Paczki Day.
In an interview with SN, Richardson said he's surprised that more supermarkets don't make better use of theme merchandising.
"I see more of it, but there are more people not doing it. And it's so easy. It just takes some preplanning. If you plan far enough in advance, you can get your suppliers involved," he said.
And marketing bakery items around a theme can extend far beyond specialty items such as paczki, which are Polish doughnut-like treats, and beyond traditional holidays.
The high-profit cake category, for instance, lends itself particularly well to theme marketing. Cakes can be decorated and they make an eye-catching display, he said; for example, in the hot summer months, tea cakes or snack cakes, the square type baked in their own pan, can be successfully promoted around a picnic theme.
For the picnic season, Richardson suggested building a theme around such light, easy-to-transport cakes, or around single-layer round cakes. Within a picnic or other summer theme, a cake of the month or a cake of the week could be promoted with good results, he said.
In addition to raising sales levels -- by as much as 15%, Richardson said -- theme merchandising can pick up employee morale, because it fosters activity and excitement in the department. What's more, it can also help bakery managers and associates stay on track when it comes to changing displays.
Richardson suggests making up a merchandising calendar for the whole year, so point-of-sale and other materials can be obtained and deployed with good timing.
All holidays, whether national or regional, provide good theme opportunities, Richardson said, but that is just the start. If there's no holiday on the near horizon, it's the retailer's job to think up a theme. "Any theme is better than none," he said.
Take a "white sale" in January, for instance, featuring a gleaming, white, wintery look in the bakery and offering one line of product -- such as doughnuts -- at a dramatically reduced price, Richardson suggested.
Ethnic themes could be placed on the merchandising schedule, too, he said. "A German or Hawaiian week, or Polish or Swedish. They'd all work, depending on the region."
Richardson knows about the power of ethnic themes. He founded the National Paczki Committee, which coordinates promotion of paczki, the super-rich, pre-Lenten treats that had their origin in Poland. The committee is now under the umbrella of the RBA.
Paczki are traditionally sold the week or two weeks preceding Lent; a Polish Week or Polish Day, at sometime other than the week before Lent, could give retailers another chance to feature the doughnut-like pastries, he suggested.
Richardson also said it's particularly effective to tie themes into local events.
"There are rival high school teams in just about every town, and some areas have a college football competition that gets everybody excited. In our state, it's Michigan State and Michigan [University]," Richardson said.
During any sports season, retailers could make a big splash with cakes and cookies decorated in school colors and could hang banners in the department, he advised.
But Richardson wouldn't stop there. He believes in pushing the theme in as many ways as possible to grab customers' attention. For example, he tells retailers to make the most of the store's public address system and of the opportunity to get associates garbed in theme clothing.
For the Fourth of July, for example, theme tie-ins need not stop with cakes iced in red, white and blue or American flags stuck in cupcakes. A typical Richardson-directed July Fourth theme might include asking associates to wear red, white or blue T-shirts and to put some Yankee Doodle or parade music on the PA system.
"Employees love to have any reason to get out of their regular uniform. We've had a lot of fun with Halloween and Mardi Gras themes," Richardson said.
He also pointed out that a theme gives associates something to talk about with customers. "Customers are more apt to ask questions, and a theme seems to make associates comfortable talking to them."
He recounted a French theme promotion that he spearheaded at Farmer Jack's during the heyday of croissants.
"Our bakery associates wore berets and, through the French Consulate here, we got a woman to make an announcement in French, then in English, for the public address system," Richardson said.
"When customers heard the French language over the system, it caught their attention. Then, she'd repeat the message about fresh, hot croissants in the bakery, in English." The results? Farmer Jack increased croissant sales tenfold, Richardson said.
"And that was at full retail price."
Richardson also told of an independent retail bakery that very successfully tied an unusual theme-merchandising scheme to a high-profile current event.
It was during the O.J. Simpson trial. Trays of doughnuts, three different flavors, were respectively tagged like this: "Guilty," "Not Guilty" and "Hung Jury." A sign on top of the display case said, "Purchase a doughnut to vote on how you think the jury will decide." Richardson said the bakery could barely keep the trays full, the doughnuts sold so fast. The retailer kept track of the votes and posted the results daily.
And whatever the theme is, it's a good idea to remind people of it with a line of type in the bakery ad, Richardson added.