'Tis the season, and tradition dictates promotional strategy in the Center Store. Retailers are approaching the impending holidays with decorous reserve, trusting in the tried and true staples to keep consumers happy. But sometimes, a little glitz and dazzle is in order.
Many grocery merchandisers SN spoke with try to keep promotions as simple as possible at this time of year, not wanting to hit the harried Christmas shopper with all the holiday bells and whistles when they come in for a quick purchase. While tasteful decoration and an abundant supply of seasonal favorites are essential, most agree that in-store activity should be kept to a minimum, and that Santa belongs in the mall.
At Dahl's Foods, Des Moines, Iowa, simplicity is the standard and the chain generally avoids extravagant displays of any kind. Ross Nixon, vice president of marketing at Dahl's, said his stores do not get involved in display contests or other busy in-store activities, and decorating is done subtly so the consumer does not feel overwhelmed. "During the holidays, customers really appreciate a shopping experience that's not bothersome or troublesome," claimed Nixon.
The chain does employ basic cross-merchandising techniques, selling the holiday idea by combining timeless classics, such as flowers and chocolates, and the formula for holiday sales does not change much from year to year, according to Nixon. It is hard to bring in new items because so much time, energy and space are spent bringing consumers the fundamental seasonal necessities, like cranberry sauce and brown sugar, he explained.
"We'd like to say we're going to reinvent the wheel, do something really different for the holidays," Nixon said. "But the demand for high usage products is such that we actually have less flexibility than we do at other times of year."
However, the Dahl's customer will find some seasonal specialty items, like Wasa bread, Swedish tin cookies and lingen berries. Many of these items are ethnically bound, and the decision to carry them is left to the discretion of individual stores in order to best serve diverse demographic needs.
Endcap displays may be used for some of the more popular products, but often the demand is steady at a half-case or case, and these products are run off the shelves, Nixon said.
Holiday sales are contingent upon the consumer's mood, and a number of factors can make or break the season. For instance, the weather can play a big role in seasonal sales, and a mild winter will cause the sale of baking products to lag, said Nixon.
Aurora Toth, director of marketing for Supervalu retail, Minneapolis, agrees with Nixon's less-is-more attitude when it comes to the holidays.
"We want to focus on getting customers in and out of the door as quickly as possible, because that's what the customer wants," she said.
But even if retailers wanted to wow the holiday shopper with lavish display, Toth feels the promotional clutter created by vendors makes it very hard for retailers to break through.
Yet, Toth has seen a lot of success with the Cub Fresh Holiday Open House, an annual demo-event highlighting Supervalu's Cub Foods chain's party trays and bakery items. This year the open house took place Oct. 11 and 12, and although in the past it has focused primarily on the perimeter, Toth said it is expanding to include sampling throughout the entire store.
Brenda Forciea, events manager at Supervalu, told SN that in addition to product demos, Supervalu has decided to join the promotional fray and has teamed up with Nabisco in a campaign centered on the movie How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Universal's live-action adaptation of the animated classic, to be released in theaters this month.
Nabisco will donate 5 cents for every specially marked package of cookies and crackers purchased, up to $15,000. The money will be spent on books in an effort to get children reading. Each Cub store will be giving away a Whoville pedal car and four passes to see the movie.
"When Cub gives away prizes, we always make sure to have a winner in every store," said Forciea. "When consumers see a real chance to win, it contributes to the success of the entire promotion."
The promotion will be supported by point-of-purchase materials in addition to endcaps featuring special pricing on selected items. Products will be identified at the shelf level throughout the store.
The Grinch aside, the Cub stores will be decorated with a winter-wonderland motif featuring snowmen and snowflakes.
"We go with the winter-wonderland because it saves on labor," explained Forciea. "When Christmas is over, we're still in season."
In a departure from some of the more conservative opinions, a representative from Ingles Markets, Black Mountain, N.C., who preferred to remain anonymous, said he feels that supermarkets should take part in the retail extravaganza, adding that his stores promote very heavily from Nov. 1 through Christmas.
He sees a huge opportunity for food retailers during the holidays and pointed to the fact that Christmas is the second biggest candy season next to Halloween, in addition to being a very long season because it takes in Thanksgiving as well. According to the chain's representative, Ingles brings in approximately 60 items for Christmas in the candy section alone. Many of these items are standard brand-name offerings dressed up for the holidays, in addition to seasonal specialties such as chocolate covered cherries and creme drops and an expanded selection of box chocolates, he said.
At Ingles, most stores have a massive free-standing display set up in the front of the store featuring all of the seasonal candy alongside toys and other holiday-specific merchandise. The displays are generally somewhere between 16 and 24 feet long.
The holiday spirit permeates the entire store and there is a lot of cross-merchandising throughout. The store is decked in traditional holiday fare -- Christmas trees, for example -- although the demographics of an individual store could influence decorating decisions, according to the source.
At Martin's Supermarkets, South Bend, Ind., the focus is on creating a complete meal solution and promoting traditional holiday-themed meals, said Doug Murphy, director of grocery merchandising. According to Murphy, the chain sells a lot based on this model, including the side dishes and extras like stuffing, cranberries and pineapple bread.
"The planning involved in a family get-together leads to a more detailed list of products that the consumer has to have," said Dahl's Nixon.
Yet, consumers are also prone to impulse buys for these very same occasions, when they stumble over a treat that the whole family would enjoy, he added.
Martin's Murphy said his stores try to meet the needs of any catered occasion, in addition to the home-cooked family meal. To that end, his stores also emphasize deli items and gift ideas like specialty food baskets. But much of the unique holiday flair is found in vendor items, particularly on the packaging, he added.
However, Martin's takes an active role in promoting the season, and although some retailers SN spoke with disagreed, Murphy does not see something along the lines of an in-store Santa Claus as an undue hassle. In the past, Martin's has had Santa walking around the store, handing out candy canes and coloring books to the kids, and Murphy has found that this helps to create the desired holiday atmosphere.
The store is decorated, but according to Murphy, most of it goes up along the perimeters and the front end while the Center Store remains largely unadorned.