Just as the holiday season is steeped in tradition for consumers, retailers continue to adhere to the promotional schedules and events of previous years with unfailing faith. And some told SN that providing continuity of message for loyal customers through holiday events provides big payback.
West Point Market, Akron, Ohio, has conducted large-scale promotional events and demos practically since its inception almost 70 years ago. Annually, West Point hosts a wide range of events, always at the same time of year.
"The holidays are so traditional," said Rick Vernon, chief executive officer for the single-operator specialty store. The holiday season is crucial to the health of his business, he added, so the store has always focused on holidays. Events have included a double-decker bus to mark a British promotion in the fall, in-store church choirs at Christmas, breakfast with Santa Claus, sleigh rides, a wine staff outfitted in tuxes to sample champagne prior to the New Year, and a person dressed as the Easter bunny handing out candy.
"Customers come to our store to be entertained, not just to shop. And we keep them entertained. The longer they stay here, the more they buy," Vernon pointed out.
While the theory is well known , it's not always leveraged to this extent.
Specialty stores and smaller chains often have an advantage in maintaining promotional continuity, according to Laura Bukowiec, director of promotions for The Goltz Seering Agency, an integrated advertising, promotions and public relations agency in Green Bay, Wis., that counts manufacturers and retailers among its clients, including Good Humor, Nakano Seasoned Rice Vinegar, and Copps Foods Centers. If a program results in incremental sales and a positive return on the investment, she said, it is usually a good idea to repeat it. However, a new twist can always be added to make a program more interesting, said Bukowiec.
Smaller chains operating with a loyal consumer base often follow previous promotional patterns, she added. Larger chains can apply the same strategy to successful programs, but the strong loyalty of small-chain consumers makes them highly aware of promotional details.
The flexibility of a smaller chain is beneficial, Bukowiec said, allowing for more creativity and input in promotion planning, stronger execution and more successful displays. Small chains can extend the promotion window or make adjustments to the program, which larger ones can't usually do.
Floor shows and costumes are not the only way that retailers optimize the holiday season. IGA, Chicago, will again run its "Hometown Holiday Recipe Challenge" for two weeks this November. The regional promotion pairs consumer packaged goods sponsors with local IGA stores to encourage consumers to submit original recipes that use a minimum of two sponsor products for the chance to win prizes. Finalists are flown to Chicago for the Hometown Holiday Cookout, as IGA has done for years.
Russ Hahn, buyer/merchandiser, Scolari's, Sparks, Nev., said that his stores will also structure promotions the same as in the past, focusing on items that sell well every year. In-store promos, freestanding inserts and giveaways and manufacturer displays are the key elements. At this stage, while some specifics have not been determined, about half the planning for Christmas has already been completed, he said. "We usually keep right on that track. Of course, you always have those wild cards that come up at the last minute," he added.
Wild cards that could threaten holiday promotions this year are the looming economic problems, combined with flagging consumer confidence and the aftereffects of war, retailers agreed. Vernon pointed out that there is quite a bit of anxiety among customers, causing many retailers to struggle with buying decisions.
The political and economic climate of the last two years affects socializing patterns as well, as consumers continue to favor celebrating important holidays at home. Frozen hors d'oeuvres, wine, crackers and cheese -- all the makings of a nice home-based party -- have been hot categories for the past two years at West Point, and Vernon anticipates that trend will continue.
"That trend is great for us; they come here to get the wine, party trays of meat and cheese, or hors d'oeuvres. I think that trend will be even bigger this year with people having parties in their home."
West Point focuses its energy on holidays that are popular with its target market in Akron -- Christmas, Hanukkah, Easter, Halloween and New Year's. The store also centers promotions on specific, imported product groups. Such efforts include a British Promotion in October, as well as French, Italian and United Tastes of America programs. Best-selling holiday products are often imported specialty foods like cookies, crackers, wine and chocolate. Other grocery favorites range from soup mixes and canned soups to coffee, pancake mix and syrup.
To meet the needs of its own market demographic -- which includes a small Jewish population and a growing number of Hispanics -- Scolari's marks Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah, Yom Kippur, Cinco de Mayo, Oktoberfest, Fourth of July, Valentine's Day and an Italian Day in September. Hahn called these "the basics" of holiday store coverage. He said they start pushing Christmas in August; Halloween candy is already being put out, and fall promotions are gearing up. Candy figures large in his holiday planning, he said.
IGA's sponsors for the holiday recipe contest are primarily grocery companies: Nabisco, Nestle, Smucker's, Coca-Cola, Minute Maid, Kraft and Hershey, according to Zorona Chapman, IGA's promotions director. Because recipes featured in the contest must contain at least two of a sponsor's products, the grocery aisles are featured prominently. West Point's main Christmas planning starts in mid-July, following the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade's summer show -- although some of it starts in January. This year's Fancy Food Show runs through tomorrow at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York. Vernon told SN that in the future, he may bump up the planning process more and more.