As post-Thanksgiving deli sales were being tallied, retailers said the market for prepared holiday dinners keeps growing -- but getting a bigger piece of that business is not getting any easier.
A spot check with deli and food-service executives across the country netted a mixed bag of sales results. For the most part, they said the challenge is that competition for holiday dinner sales is heating up just as much as consumer demand is.
"With everybody getting into the business, it's hard to make money on the category," one West Coast retailer said. Still, retailers all agreed that there is money to be made, if in some cases it did not happen this season for individual operators.
And for some operators, big sales gains did happen. At Busch's Valu Land, Ann Arbor, Mich., dinner sales shot 30% above 1994's figures, which in turn had represented a big gain from 1993. Harris Teeter, Charlotte, N.C., also was "very successful" with its dinner sales this year, chain officials said.
At the other end of the spectrum were operators with sobering seasons, such as Consumers Markets, Springfield, Mo., which sold "only a little more than half" the number of dinners it had sold at Thanksgiving in 1994.
Between such extremes, a majority of retailers polled said that they posted modest gains. And they remain optimistic about the business.
"I think holiday dinner sales will keep growing, because more and more families are not cooking. They don't
have the time," said Carroll Brown, corporate vice president of food-service operations for 131-unit Randalls Food Markets, Houston.
Brown said his chain's Thanksgiving dinner sales "were up some from last year," and "came up to our projections pretty well." He declined to be more specific.
Dan Courser, vice president of perishables for the nine-unit Busch's Valu Land, was more enthusiastic about dinner performance. "Sales just keep on going up as word gets around about our home-cooked dinners," he said.
The company roasts its turkeys in-store and makes its side dishes from scratch at its central commissary.
"One of our stores alone sold 150 dinners and that's at $49.95 each," said Courser, who also pointed out that that retail price is up $5 from last year.
"It's word of mouth," he said.
This year for the first time, Busch's Valu Land had its associates offer tastes of freshly roasted turkey and trimmings, during a pre-holiday in-store expo in the first weekend in November.
Harris Teeter had a "very substantial increase in sales over last year," said Gianfranco DiCarlo, director of deli, bakery, and food service for the 140-unit chain.
DiCarlo said he thought new competition in his chain's market might have helped dinner sales.
"A least two of our competitors who didn't have dinners last year had them this year, but that may be good. Maybe it's subliminal perception. People keep seeing all those ads," DiCarlo said.
The flurry of advertising at least gets people thinking about supermarkets as an option when it comes to getting a holiday dinner, he said.
"And our customers already know the quality of our products is excellent," he said.
DiCarlo would not disclose the percentage gains his chain's program experienced. He did attribute the chain's sales performance to growing demand for prepared holiday dinners and, in part, to the addition of gourmet fixings at some Harris Teeter units.
"We offered wild rice stuffing and chestnut stuffing and green beans almondine for the first time by the pound, as an addition to the meals. That, I know, accentuated the turkey dinners and probably enhanced dinner sales," DiCarlo said.
Sales were down from last year at Consumers Markets, but that does not daunt Renee Kahl, director of bakery and deli operations for the 24-unit chain, in her overall zeal for the program. She will make changes, however.
"I'll do it again next year, offering two types of dinners; but I'll do some things differently," Kahl said.
This year, the company offered a regular component dinner at $35 and a deluxe at $45, instead of a single meal package at one price as it did last year.
Kahl is composing a list of things she will put into effect next year to underscore the quality of Consumers' dinners, which she said is key.
"I'll do more advertising, and do it earlier. I think you have to be out there the first week in November, and we weren't out early enough this year. I'll also highlight the brand name of the turkeys more in the ad and in the stores." No. 1 on her priority list will be selling managers and associates on the quality of the dinners.
"In one of our stores this year, the deli manager took one of the dinners home early, heated it up and served it to her family, and they loved it. That was before Thanksgiving week," Kahl said. She added that she believes it was no coincidence that unit eventually placed third on a companywide list of stores that had the best dinner sales.
Consumers Markets' holiday dinner program is important because it gives people the convenience they're looking for, and because it helps promote the company's image, Kahl said.
"It can bring in catering business later. If they like the turkey dinner, they'll think of us later when they're entertaining," she said.
Judging from preliminary figures tallied the day after Thanksgiving weekend, officials at Riser Foods, Bedford Heights, Ohio, estimated dinner sales would be 5% to 10% higher than last year.
"We're pleased. It looks like our projections were right on target," said Voni Woods, manager of deli operations for Riser, which operates 38 supermarkets under Rini-Rego and Stop-n-Shop banners and supplies others as a wholesaler.
"It's a good category because demand is growing and I think word of mouth is driving our sales," Woods added.
At a store operated by Tidyman's, Greenacres, Wash., a projected big increase in dinner sales this year did not pan out.
"We just matched what we did last year at this store, and sold 100 dinners, while total sales in the service deli were up a little more than 5% for Thanksgiving week," said Valerie Martin, deli manager at the Tidyman's store in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
She said what helped push total department sales up was offering dessert salads and Waldorf salads in a self-service display in front of the service counter.