Healthy bread, hearty bread, hot prices and cake like Grandma used to make are helping to keep in-store bakeries' sales as warm as a country kitchen in January.
Once the Christmas bells stop ringing, so can the ISB registers. Come Jan. 1, it seems like everyone in the world goes on a diet and begins to shun sweets with a vengeance.
Especially in this era of good, artisan breads, ISBs don't just have to let 'em eat cake. Focusing on bread that adds some healthy fiber or just goes well with a bowl of chili on a cold, football afternoon can help re-ignite post-holiday sales, retailers told SN.
"We try to make sure our advertising is in balance with what's really happening in January. You have to change your thought processes to get in line with what customers are thinking," said Carl Richardson, vice president, bakery operations, at 106-unit Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y. "We go back to the bread lines, getting away from sweets."
Price Chopper's ad circular for the second week in January put sourdough bread at the top of the page with a buy-one, get-one-free offer. The chain's new low-carb bagels, too, had a spot in the ad, but not at a special price.
"Low-carb is no longer price-decided. The ingredients you put together for those items cost more, and people will pay for that," Richardson said.
Paul Supplee, director, bakery operations, at Lunds/Byerly's, Minneapolis, echoed that sentiment. He's pricing newly introduced low-carb bagels and low-carb hamburger buns at $2.99 for four.
"The ingredient costs are higher. There's flaxseed and more grains in them, a lot more fiber," Supplee said, adding that the big focus this winter is on artisan bread.
"We've always had a whole grain, but now we're offering 10 varieties of artisan bread. That's compared to just three varieties this time last year."
Also new this year is a signature beer bread that grabs the spotlight at Lunds/Byerly's just in time for the Super Bowl. In fact, it was just introduced, at $3.99, the first week of this month.
"We partnered with a local brewer to do this. Summit beer is known here. We're using their porter in the bread, and we add malted barley to make a good beer flavor. We featured it right away this month. It definitely has some cache with our customers," Supplee said.
The bread, formulated by Lunds/Byerly's and made at the 20-unit chain's central bakery, has a prominent display of its own in the ISB and is being touted with in-store signage and in an in-store newsletter. Demos in the deli on the weekend of the 16th paired the new bread with cheese, and regular cross merchandising in the deli is on the agenda, Supplee said.
At Bristol Farms, an upscale, 11-unit chain based in Carson, Calif., the big deal, too, is hearty, comforting items in the bakery.
"We don't get much into the health aspects. We do more promoting of the wintery type products, like cornbread. And we put more attention on hot dog and hamburger buns," said Pete Hejny, Bristol Farms' senior director, food service and bakery.
A very hefty bread with a hefty name -- hot pepper-cheese-pepperoni -- is doing just fine right now at Riesbeck's Markets, Saint Clairsville, Ohio, said John Chickery, bakery director. It's $4.59 for an 18-ounce loaf.
All in all, Riesbeck's has learned over the years to curtail its production of sweet goods by 20%, and hike its bread and roll production by the same percentage in January and February, Chickery told SN.
"Our bread sales are good. In fact, for the first week of January, our sales are up 3% over the same week last year. People are eating lighter, there's no doubt, but they're having sandwiches and salad, or sandwiches and soup," Chickery said. "You know, people slow down on spending, too, after the holidays, so they're eating at home more. They may have ham left from Christmas, so they want good bread for sandwiches. Our bread biscuits, a denser bread that's great for Sloppy Joes, do very well this time of year."
He pointed out, however, that stepped-up demoing and an enforced program of messages over the public address system this time of year get a lot of credit for bringing customers into the ISB.
During the dark days between New Year's and Valentine's Day, there has at least been Super Bowl Sunday, when ISBs everywhere train their lights on rolls and breads. They seem to be naturals to go with huge sub sandwiches and chili served up that day. In addition, in recent years, some retailers have begun to spread out the excitement -- and sales spikes -- by including the playoffs leading up to the big football day.
As they are at many other supermarkets, game days are big at Riesbeck's, where team-colored bread and clusters of rolls are featured.
At EatZi's, the combo retail/restaurant concept based in Dallas, game days have always brightened sales after New Year's, but now the company has widened its focus on sports events.
"Aside from the 'Hallmark holidays,' the big holidays, we spend a lot of time highlighting events. Right now, it's the playoffs. It's not just the Super Bowl anymore. It's the whole process. We'll even run it into March Madness [the basketball playoffs]. We put our focus on baguettes, which are used for spreads and the round loaves to hollow out for dips," said Terry Roberts, EatZi's vice president, brand management.
"We highlight our hearty options like our grain breads, skillet cornbread, and one of our signature items like three-chili cheese bread by putting them with our stew and chili menus," she added.
EatZi's always focused on game days, but now it's putting more emphasis on them and working on more sports-event-related promotions. "We've begun to keep track of all sports events in January, and are spreading out the emphasis," she added.
Even in the midst of the low-carb diet craze, EatZi's bakery sales have stayed up this winter, Roberts said.
"I think to some extent, it's the uniqueness of our products. We have great pastries, some of them small. We don't sell gargantuan, mega brownies, things like that. We also sample whole-grain and whole-wheat breads more now, and we talk about them more."
While EatZi's does not put a special price on baked goods during this traditionally slow period, supermarket chains often do.
Hot pricing is part of the plan at Riesbeck's on bread and sweet goods.
"We take off 50 cents a loaf on some of our artisan breads, and then we offer a loaf of Italian bread for 99 cents all through January. The regular price is $1.79. And we've been featuring 'Grandma's bread,' a signature soft, white loaf for $1.19. It's usually $1.69," Chickery said.
At the end of January, when people's dieting resolve often wavers, Riesbeck's looks to appeal to customers with a hot price on a new item that Chickery thinks will be very difficult to resist. He figures it will tug at their heartstrings. It's a single layer, 8-inch, yellow cake with a new, dark chocolate icing, for $3.99.
"I think just about everybody around here remembers their mother or their grandmother making a cake like that. In this area, it is something old-fashioned that people used to bake all the time at home," Chickery explained.
"It'll work. We're going to sample the daylights out of it. I'm confident that when they taste it, they'll buy it," he added.
Even at Price Chopper, where bread is featured, a hot price on an old-time favorite sweet got high billing in its ad circular earlier this month: an 8-inch, lemon meringue pie for $3.99. Bristol Farms, meanwhile, in a bow to low-carb dieters, introduced some low-carb items before the first of the year, and then set out this month to tantalize them with a special on a brand new, low-carb cheesecake. An ad that ran two weeks ago offered a slice of the cake at $2.99, noting its everyday price is $3.49.
"It has a great flavor profile. We have raspberry and chocolate as well as plain, and they're all selling well," said Bristol Farms' Hejny.
Indeed, with a little help from the strike that's affecting its competitors, Bristol Farms has seen double-digit increases in its bakery sales this month compared to the same period a year ago. With such momentum going, Hejny said he's projecting a 24% increase for this Valentine's Day over last year's.
Other retailers told SN that Valentine's Day's falling on a Saturday bodes well because there's all weekend to celebrate. Some items are already being spotlighted.
One traditional item at Lunds/Byerly's -- the chocolate-dipped strawberry -- is getting early exposure this year because the strawberries are approved by the South Beach Diet, one of the popular low-carb diets.
"Right now, we have a big platter of them, at $1.50 each, set in our pastry case. They're dipped in dark chocolate," Supplee said.
Supplee, like Hejny, expects Valentine's Day to yield good sales results.
"In fact, we expect it to be a good January, and I think it'll keep on going here. The diet craze, the economy ... it all has just made us try harder," Supplee said.