The popularity of holiday party trays continues to grow, but retailers aren't about to sit back and celebrate.
They're hard at work thinking of new ways to make the most of this high-margin category. Some are going after more volume by introducing smaller trays at a lower price, or by cutting the price of regular trays. And they've found ways to make it simpler for customers to place orders. "There's continued growth in party trays, but you have to keep throwing in something new," said Ron Bourland, director of food service at Tom Thumb Food & Drugs, Dallas. "Ten years ago it was a big thing that you could buy a party tray already made up, but not anymore."
Phillip Grasso, director of deli operations at 178-unit Ingles Markets, Black Mountain, N.C., said his company is working on
simplifying its offerings. "We've made our party brochure less confusing by cutting down the number of items in it and by putting the prices beside them instead of on a separate list," he said.
Grasso, like others, has added more snack-type trays. One featuring cubed cheeses and a Buffalo chicken wing platter make for easier party eating, he said.
"They are good at a crowded party. You don't have to be looking around for a piece of bread or a roll to put meat or cheese on," he said, referring to the traditional party trays of rolled up deli meats and cheeses. Mansour Alzaharna, service deli supervisor at 10-unit Tidyman's, Green Acres, Wash., also has introduced more snack-type trays, including one that features a variety of tea sandwiches, priced by the dozen.
Other retailers interviewed by SN on the eve of the holiday entertaining season are targeting new customers.
"We're downsizing some trays to get customers who have never bought one before either because of the price or because they didn't have enough people to feed," said Jon O'Neall, cheese island manager at a Cedar Falls, Iowa, unit of Hy-Vee Food Stores, the Chariton, Iowa-based chain of some 200 units.
"The small party is a market we haven't tapped into before, but we will this year. We'll be aggressive with our smaller trays," said Larry Jones, deli merchandising manager at Fiesta Mart, Houston, which has 30 units.
Some retailers said they're trying to grab consumers' attention in different ways this year. For example, one is running a full-page newspaper ad for party trays, and another is making Christmas trees out of cheese cubes. To make the trays, which can be a labor-intensive process, especially in a busy season for the service deli, retailers are trying to streamline production. Some have begun sourcing cheeses already cubed, and one retailer says he has halved the time it takes to assemble a meat and cheese tray by folding, rather than rolling, slices of meat and cheese.
All 10 of the deli executives SN surveyed said they see big growth potential in the category. Here are details of their plans:
We've introduced three new trays that feature food that's easier to eat. A Mexican tray with mini tacos and burritos and just about everything you can think of in Mexican food in miniature. They're finger foods, the hottest thing there is right now, and we figured with all the Taco Bells going up, Mexican food must still be growing in popularity.
A stromboli and a smoked salmon pinwheel are the other new ones. We have little easel signs on all our deli counters showing a color photo of the new items. There's continued growth in party trays, but you have to keep throwing in something new. Ten years ago, it was a big thing that you could buy a party tray already made up, but not anymore. You have to give them some different choices.
I think we'll put a card in with our trays this year. It'll say something like "Your Food City party tray was created by:" and the associate will sign it. It'll give a warmer feeling to it, and I think people tend to do a better job when they know they're accountable. I see the category growing indefinitely. There are more parties where people delegate out portions of it. For example, they ask guests to bring something, and a party tray is perfect for that.
It's important to have a third shift dedicated to mass-producing party trays that have been ordered. That way, your other associates can make one up on short notice. You don't lose any of those impulse sales.
We've made our new brochure more concise to make it easier for the customer. It tells exactly what product in what quantity goes on a particular tray. We'll be using the brochures as bag stuffers as well as having them displayed at all the deli counters.
The detail in the brochure makes it easy for the associate, too. He or she can just grab a brochure if there's a question about what goes on a particular tray. He won't have to look around for a party tray manual and maybe not know whether it's been updated. Besides the snack trays, we added another platter that includes salads and breads and olives and pickles with meats and cheeses. Everything is there together for the customer. He doesn't have to shop the store.
We've probably cut labor in half by folding meats and cheeses rather than rolling them as we'd done in the past. Not only is it quicker for us, but it's easier for people to pick up folded meat or cheese with a fork and put it on a piece of bread.
We've also introduced a snack tray this year with just finger foods. And we're offering a finger sandwich tray for the first time. They're made by trimming a regular-sized sandwich of its crust and cutting it in fours. For color, we stack them on the tray with a layer made with white bread, then wheat, and so on. I think they're particularly good for office parties, where people may not want to stand around talking while eating a whole, regular sandwich.
We're going for more volume by downsizing some trays to get people we hadn't had before. We'll put them out for grab-and-go. They're 9-inch trays, for no more than $10, that'll feed four to six people.
That was a companywide suggestion made at a holiday planning meeting. We have had a good trade in the past with our 12-inch trays at $13. People pick them up on the way to the office. A lot of companies no longer have big holiday parties, but leave that up to individual departments.
I'm also having a cube-cheese Christmas tree for the first time. We're getting foam cones from our floral distributor. With toothpicks, you can stick cheese cubes in them. They'll attract attention.
For the first time this year, we're putting an ad in a gift magazine that the newspapers are printing and distributing with the papers. There's a picture of our party platters and our party hot line is in it.
Also, we're putting up our gift centers in our stores earlier this year. Our brochures are displayed there. This is the first time we've done it before Thanksgiving. People do take gifts when they visit someone for Thanksgiving dinner. Cheese trays or snack trays possibly, as well as wine and flower arrangements.
We're going to reduce the retail price of some trays with new promotions. We've had good support from one of our suppliers. They're sponsoring a full-page newspaper ad for party trays. We'll be more aggressive, too, with our smaller trays.
Our 12-inch trays are perfect for a smaller party and the price will be good. The small party, whether it's at home or the office, is a market we haven't tapped into before. We can make money selling small trays. And, to save on labor, we'll make a lot of use of cubed cheeses, which we're buying now precubed, in bulk. We're looking to increase office party business. Right now it's about 50-50, but I'd love to see it at 70% office. We're asking all our deli managers to attach their business cards to the party brochures this year. Hopefully, business people will keep the card and have the number there when it's time.
We're asking our deli managers to visit businesses in their area and take sample trays. We did that two years ago, but not last year. We had just got replica trays and we concentrated on catching consumers' attention with them. It worked. Our tray business was up 17% to 18% last year over the year before.
But it's time to look at local businesses again. At a recent meeting of deli managers, most said they could think of a half-dozen businesses that have come into their area since we did visits before. Those are the ones we want to hit.
We've made it each deli manager's responsibility to visit 12 offices. But the biggest challenge is finding out who the key person is at a company, the person who can make the decision. So this year, we're asking deli managers to work with their store manager on that. Store managers may have contacts that the deli person might not have. We'll also be paying a lot of attention to promoting our simple, smaller trays, such as our cheese ball with cubes around it.