Olympic-related promotions are the latest in a long line of sports tie-ins intended to score points for supermarkets.
While a number of operators are hooking into the Olympics, many others said they are concentrating their marketing efforts on local or regional sports events that generate a great deal of interest among their core customers. And, some experts said, focusing on those events often helps supermarkets build better relations in their communities.
Retailers are associating themselves with many events, including auto races, baseball games, the Super Bowl and the Special Olympics. The moves are considered traffic builders for stores, which help to deter the consumer from a pure price focus while shopping, according to observers.
"If a product or a supermarket is aligned with customers' lifestyles, they are able to gain trust from consumers who buy the products or shop in the stores," said Jed Pearsall, president of Performance Research, a Newport, R.I., company that does market research and evaluations of corporate sponsorships. "They enter a circle of trust for consumers if they are offering a benefit to the community that may not have otherwise happened. They may generate loyalty. They may generate more traffic."
A New York retail consultant said sponsoring sports-related events helps the industry to reinvent the service part of the business.
"Part of micromarketing is to identify with community affairs," said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates Inc., New York, a retail consultant firm. "This is the sort of thing stores do to say thank you. It's a local touch. In the mind of a parent [that sponsorship] may be very important because their kid is on the team.
"A concern in the food business is the issue of price. Everyone is concerned about price and if they can keep their prices low enough. Now another thing they can use to combat the price is sponsor these types of events. It is something that transcends price and is part of a service. It is a growing trend because more and more people are trying to transcend price," he said. "The big question for people in the supermarket industry today is how do we reinvent our business. In some small way and in a way that is appealing to local community, sponsoring sporting events may be a part of reinventing the business."
Many chains across the country have seen the benefits of having their name behind a local event -- their customers appreciate it, their employees get excited about it and, hopefully, their sales increase, several officials said. Salisbury, N.C.-based Food Lion is the official supermarket sponsor of NASCAR, the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, a status that matches perfectly with the company's demographics, said Cecily N. Durrett, a spokeswoman. "We are right smack in the middle of NASCAR country. There was a perfect fit between our core customers and the typical NASCAR fan," said Durrett. "Every one of 1,086 stores is decked out in NASCAR regalia. We have everything from pictures of race cars hanging from the ceiling to banners. No area of the store has been left out."
Promotions for the Food Lion/NASCAR Super Fan Challenge are everywhere, said Durrett. Instant win games, television commercials, weekly circulars, in-store kiosks and store visits by race car drivers are some of the chain's promotional tools.
"It is tied into everything. NASCAR reaches into every corner of our business," she added. "This is the largest retail promotion in NASCAR history. Their fans are our customers. There is probably not a better example in history of a marketing effort where the demographics dovetail so nicely."
Durrett said the chain, located in 14 states in the South, uses the event promotion not only to thank its longtime customers, but also as a way to attract new consumers to its stores. "One of the primary marketing motivations behind the promotion was not only to reward loyal customers, but perhaps generate new traffic from NASCAR fans who may not be familiar with us." It is too early to tell if the publicity and advertising are affecting sales, she said, noting, though, that there is additional traffic in the stores.
Food Lion is not the only company taking advantage of the growing popularity of auto racing. Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif., has been sponsoring the Save Mart Supermarkets' 300 NASCAR Winston Cup Race in Sonoma, Calif., for five years, said Director of Marketing Sally Sanborn.
"This is probably one of our most successful promotions," she said. "The stores get really excited about it. You can't walk into a store and not see the race promotions. The customers love it. Traffic is definitely generated through the marketing efforts."
Sanborn said the stores go all out to promote the race. They sell tickets, give away prizes, provide bus trips to the race track, sponsor a children's race and schedule race car driver appearances.
This year, Save Mart is also the official supermarket of the San Francisco 49ers football team, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, she said. The company will kick off its promotions in September.
Speaking of football, the Super Bowl is another sporting event chains often gear up for. Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine, sees a considerable amount of movement in stores because people are shopping for parties, said spokeswoman Susan Pierter.
"People are inclined to have parties and have people over for the Super Bowl. We advertise ourselves as a Super Bowl center," she said. "We are more likely to do more marketing and take out a large ad billing ourselves as 'Your Super Bowl Headquarters.' It's a good food event and it does seem to work well for us."
Although declining to say exactly how much the promotions affect sales, she said the stores see revenue increases in deli section items, prepared platters, pizzas, chips and beverages.
Baseball games are the sporting events of choice for the Northern California Division of Safeway, but each division generally decides what regional sports teams to promote, said spokeswoman Debra Lambert. The Northern California division does several tie-ins with the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A's during the regular season, said Lambert. One of its more successful plugs is the "Safeway Saturday BBQ" tailgate party it occasionally throws in the stadium parking lot with a local radio station, she said. Safeway donates all the food to the first 10,000 fans. "It's a nice way to reach a big segment of the market. They are family-oriented events and it's a good way to show support of local teams," Lambert said. "It's a nice way to associate the company. The response is very positive."
H.E. Butt Grocery Co., San Antonio, also is not new to the sports scene. For years, it sponsored the Texas Open Professional Golf Association tournament and now supports the San Antonio Spurs professional basketball team, said Mike De La Garza, vice president of public affairs and communications. De La Garza said the public remembers if you were associated with something they are interested in and appreciates it.
"If a promotion can be part of entertainment, customers appreciate that more. Customers tend to shop with more appreciation because you support their team," he said.
Waldbaum's, owned by A&P, has an annual sports event of its own -- the Waldbaum's Hamlet Cup men's tennis tournament, said A&P's Michael Rourke, senior vice president of communications and corporate affairs. This year is the fourth time the Central Islip, N.Y.-based supermarket is sponsoring the match, which is scheduled for August.
The tournament, the subject of local advertisements, consumer promotions and other grassroots events, is a way for Waldbaum's to continue its commitment to community events, noted Arthur Waldbaum, executive vice president.
"As a beloved summertime tradition on Long Island, the Waldbaum's Hamlet Cup continues to maintain a steadfast reputation for quality and commitment as one of the premiere events in the area as well as on the international ATP Tour," explained Waldbaum. The professional match also coincides with the company's sponsorship of the Hamlet Cup Junior Tennis Challenge, a showcase tournament for the best junior players in the area.
While chains often seek out local sponsorships, in some cases the sports event coordinators initiate the partnership. That is what happened with the Michigan Special Olympics, said Jann McKellar, advertising manager at Spartan Stores, Grand Rapids, Mich.
She said the Special Olympics Committee was looking for a sponsor that had business ties in the community and approached Spartan about 12 years ago.