Retailers promoted fully prepared luxury dinners for two at value prices for Valentine's Day, but sales were slightly disappointing, several told SN.
Meat departments, on the other hand, did better with specially priced steaks and seafood, indicating that shoppers looking to share a romantic dinner at home may have decided to prepare it themselves.
The culprit may have been timing. Valentine's Day fell on a Saturday, a Saturday of a three-day weekend, and a Saturday when children in many districts were starting a week off from school.
“We're speculating that a lot of families left town for the weekend. School was out Friday at noon, and I know some people were going to the north, skiing,” said Mario Martinez, corporate executive chef at AJ's Fine Foods, an upscale division of Basha's, Chandler, Ariz.
“We had a smokin' deal,” Martinez said, describing the Valentine's Day dinner he advertised. “A four-course, luxury dinner for two for $59.99. Then, when they bought that, they got 25% off on a bottle of wine or champagne.”
AJ's advertised the meal weeks in advance, and Martinez said he expected orders to pile in, but they didn't, not in great numbers.
“I thought we'd have lots pre-ordered. We did have the same meals on our hot line, and we sold a lot of those on Saturday, but it's too early to calculate how many,” Martinez said.
At Stauffers of Kissel Hill, a three-unit independent based in Lititz, Pa., a bistro, with seating, in its newest store offered a special Valentine's Day meal for two that included a steak and crab cake dinner along with appetizer and dessert.
“That did fairly well. I can't really say I'm disappointed, knowing how the economy is,” Mike Huegel, the company's deli-bakery buyer, told SN last week.
“And, with Valentine's falling on Saturday, it just fits the mold of eating out in a restaurant.”
Huegel said SKH's prepared food department didn't offer a meal deal for Valentine's Day, other than the one in the bistro. But, he said, “There were some very nice sales for our meat departments.”
In fact, his colleague, John Gerlach, the company's meat buyer, said steak sales were good.
“Filet mignon — not a surprise — was our best seller, but we had a Delmonico butterflied so it looked heart-shaped. That did well.”
Even though his meat sales held up, Gerlach did not subscribe to the theory that people would not eat out at restaurants this Valentine's Day. At least, that theory did not hold water in Lancaster County, Pa., he said.
“At my wife's and my favorite restaurants in the area, which have ‘call ahead’ seating, we found one had a wait of two hours and another one was three,” Gerlach said.
“The third was completely booked for the whole evening. Around here, on most weekends, the restaurants are as packed as ever.”
But that is particular to the area, which hasn't yet been hit as hard by the recession as other areas, Gerlach pointed out.
“Unemployment is 5.5% right now, not as bad as in other places.”
In another part of Pennsylvania, closer to Philadelphia, McCaffrey's advertised a fully prepared Valentine's Day dinner for two on the front page of its circular.
“We even embellished the ad a little this year, with a picture of a couple eating at home by candlelight,” said Mark Eckhouse, vice president at the three-unit independent based in Langhorne, Pa.
But Eckhouse had higher hopes for the meat department, when SN spoke to him the day before Valentine's Day.
“We thought prepared foods would be going great these last months, with people eating out at restaurants fewer times per week, but our actual numbers [in that category] have dropped a little since the first of the year,” Eckhouse said.
“What's up is our meat sales. They're up 3%-4% [year-to-date].”
McCaffrey's is situated in an affluent area, but still, customers are being careful.
“They're not making as many trips a week to our stores, and instead of buying more prepared foods, they're buying steaks and ingredients. I guess cooking at home.”
Eckhouse theorizes that his customers indeed are eating out less, but instead of buying prepared foods, they're thinking, “I can save even more if I cook it at home.”
Just a look around at ad circulars and listening to radio ads before Valentine's Day, it appeared that most retailers were focusing on steaks and seafood to cook at home.
That's what Pennington Market, Pennington, N.J., did. The single-unit independent put the spotlight on filet butt tenderloin at $7.88 a pound and 6-ounce lobster tails at $7.88 each.
“Our sales, I think, met our expectations. We sold an awful lot, and had almost none left at the end of the day,” a meat department associate told SN.
Rouses, too, concentrated on steaks, flowers and fancy cakes, even though the Thibodaux, La.-based chain has a well-developed prepared food department.
The chain's circular, decked from top to bottom with hearts, had a large band across the meat section that said, “Cook Up Some Romance With Rouses.” Another band across the page said, “Sizzling Steaks & Seafood for Your Valentine.”
Value prices dominated with T-bone steaks at $7.97 a pound, and cold-water lobster tails at $8.99 each. There were also heart-shaped rib-eye steaks and “His and Her Cuts” paired.
Out on the West Coast, it was the surf-and-turf and upscale steak cuts that did “pretty well” at Lamb's Thriftway, Portland, Ore.
“Nothing really exciting, but they did meet our expectations, and did much better than our prepared items,” said Tanney Staffenson, advisor to the five-unit Lamb's.