Supermarkets are quickly shedding their holiday focus and are already suiting up for the next big event: Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Many Super Bowl parties have become events of lavish spreads, almost as important as the game itself. According to some estimates, Super Bowl Sunday is the second-biggest food consumption day of the year, behind Thanksgiving, and smart retailers are geared up to take advantage of the excitement the game generates.
"As retailers, we are always looking for occasions to celebrate with the customers, and the Super Bowl is a natural," said Tom Jackson, president of the Ohio Grocers Association, Columbus, Ohio. "It comes a month after New Year's when people are trying to get refocused and it helps capture their attention because it is a festive occasion everyone likes."
In one sense, Super Bowl kicks off a series of holidays that can take retailers through the first half of the year -- Valentine's Day, Saint Patrick's Day, Easter and so on. "It catapults us into the holiday merchandise for the entire year," Jackson said.
This year's Super Bowl will be played Feb. 1 in Houston, and Randalls Food Markets has the homefield advantage. Founded there, Randalls is the official grocery retail sponsor of the Super Bowl host committee. Displays and advertising in all the stores are dominated by the Super Bowl. Randalls is also participating in a contest that will award four winners with two tickets each to the game, along with deluxe hotel accommodations and other prizes, said Connie Yates, the retailer's director of public affairs.
"We are a hometown grocer and are so much a part of the fabric of Houston that it was natural for us to be an official sponsor of the host committee," Yates said. "Our involvement started in September because we are the official headquarters for the nearly 10,000 volunteers needed to put on all of the Super Bowl activities and the NFL Experience, which is an interactive attraction that draws thousands of people. Everyone in the stores is so excited about this and has been for months."
Yates told SN that Randalls has three parts to its promotion: the volunteer component, the sweepstakes component and the football party themes. Displays for the football parties vary from store to store, depending on how much room they have, but everyone is building something, she said.
"One store is building a stadium more than six feet high, with one side open so customers can see inside. It will have 20-ounce soda bottles as the 'people' in the stadium seats. We'll have cheeseballs shaped like footballs and all kinds of imaginative things," she said. "[The Super Bowl] is a great thing for Houston and we are part of Houston. It is bigger than other holidays because this does not come around every year. It is unique."
Randalls is not the only game in town, however. Chuck Barbee, director of advertising for Market Basket Food Stores, said the 38-store chain is doing a lot of marketing with brands such as Coca-Cola and Kraft.
"We have special sections in the ads and we are building massive store displays with party products on the ends of two aisles and then an archway across the top [that looks] like the tunnel players run out of," he said.
Here, store personnel can play a big role in contributing ideas because stores range from 24,000 square feet to 55,000 square feet, and promotions need to be tailored to fit, he added.
"We might have a refrigerator pack with cheeses and snacks, and cross merchandise that with the meat or deli department and then tie the beer into that. We are 90 miles from Houston, so we are getting excited."
Market Basket is stressing higher-end products because that is what the customers serve to guests for parties, he added.
However, retailers don't have to be local to the game to promote parties. Wooster, Ohio-based Buehler's Food Markets is using sports-oriented recipes and their ingredients to draw customers into the store, and into a festive atmosphere.
"We have mini food festivals with a lot of in-store tasting emphasizing Buehler's products," said Mary McMillen, director of consumer affairs for the 11-store independent. Buehler's is somewhat unusual in that it has large supermarkets averaging 80,000 square feet located in small communities.
"Customers like recipes even if it is for something that seems easy, like chili or sausage and peppers. We give them the best choices so they can make things from scratch, and we cross merchandise, usually setting up the displays in the area of the highest-ring item," she explained.
The in-store and mailed circulars in January are featuring "Parking Lot Punch," "Pre-game Spinach Balls," which have lots of spices, "Two Minute Drill Dip," featuring crabmeat or shrimp, and "Sideline Sausage."
"Of course, all of the ingredients for each will be featured in the stores," McMillen said.
For those stores that have room inside, the retailer might bring in an actual pickup truck and set up a tailgate party display including soda and beer. Leading up to the Super Bowl, store associates get into the spirit of the game by participating in "favorite team jersey day," where they don their preferred team's colors.
Most Buehler's supermarkets have restaurants in the stores and a nice display space is available in front of each restaurant to highlight holidays or festivities such as the Super Bowl.
Huffman's Market in Columbus, Ohio, is focusing on snacks and drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic.
"We sell a lot of beer, wine and chips," said Tim Huffman, owner. "This is true of all football games, not just the Super Bowl. And it is not just chips, of course. It is also ice cream, pasta, candy, salsa and cheeses. For cheese, Laughing Cow seems to be particularly popular even though it is expensive. And, of course, we tie the party trays in with the snacks."
This year, for the first time, Huffman's is adding an endcap of low-carbohydrate items, "because more people want those types of snacks," he added.
One of the biggest Super Bowl-related contests is being sponsored by Save Mart Supermarkets based in Modesto, Calif., in cooperation with Dryer's Ice Cream. The grand prize, valued at $11,000, includes a trip for two to the Super Bowl, deluxe accommodations, a welcome reception with an American Football Conference player, a cocktail party with a National Football Conference player and $500 spending money, among other things.
"We have large displays in the ice cream section that direct people to enter the contest, and we have header cards and in-store banners. It is also featured in the advertising mailed to more than 1 million people in California. We have done contests before, but never before has it been a contest with a brand name that was exclusive to our stores, which this one is," said Sally Sanborn, a spokeswoman for the 122-store operator.
"We are also cross merchandising party snacks and beverages with prepared trays and bakery products, and even with steaks in the meat department for barbecues," she said.
Even for retailers who focus on the perimeter departments, Center Store promotions for Super Bowl play an important role, said Barb Schenk, vice president of operations at Mustard Seed Market & Cafe, with two stores in Cleveland and Akron, Ohio. Both have restaurants and coffee bars attached to their supermarkets.
In Center Store, a huge wagon in front of the wine and beer department is used to highlight holidays, including the Super Bowl.
"What we call the 'Seed Specials' now will be Super Bowl-related items on special sale and they will be featured in the mailers going to the homes and in newspapers. We will use in-aisle displays for chips and salsas and other snacks," Schenk said.