As the winter holidays approach, retailers are gearing up for brisk sales in frozen pies, cakes and pie crusts.
"We've got everybody cutting the product in at retail, and ads set up. Thanksgiving is where you want to hit real hard. You want to get the product in there, because people anticipate. They get into the holiday spirit, and they bake more," said Jim Ryan, business development manager for Pezrow-New England, a broker in Foxboro, Mass.
The trend back toward high-indulgence items could help sales this year, said Donna C. Maglio, dairy/frozen merchandiser for Bozzuto's, a wholesaler based in Cheshire, Conn., that serves 250 stores.
"Thanksgiving means a huge amount of volume in a very short time. Christmas used to be a much bigger eating holiday," noted Ryan. In the past five years, he said, more people are traveling or vacationing at Christmastime. The result is that Christmas sales of frozen sweet goods are about two-thirds of what is generated for Thanksgiving.
The core of the frozen-pie business is pumpkin and apple varieties, but it's a short window, retailers said.
"One thing about a holiday: when it's over, it's over, and you need to get out of it," said Roger Burks, senior vice president of Mad Butcher, Pine Bluff, Ark.
Retailers also mentioned the problem of seasonal transition: it's necessary to discard the old and switch to the new, two to three times a year. Thaw-and-serve cream pies are more popular in the spring and summer. "The problem is, we are willing to transform our stores earlier than our distributors can get the product in," Burks said.
"But if we do our planning a little bit more in advance, then the supplier should have the product in stock by the time we are ready to switch seasons," he added.
A Midwestern cooperative wholesaler who did not want to be identified said that stores should look to what slows down during the winter and use that space for cakes and pies during the holiday season.
"Ice cream novelties die in the winter time. Maybe you could take some of that space and use it for your pies during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. Once it starts selling out in January, space frees up and you can start putting your summer items in," he said.
He anticipates getting new individual serving sizes of Cheesecake Bites and Cheesecake Singles from Sara Lee, now in test markets in Chicago and San Francisco.
"In the dessert category, we are showing slight growth, up about 2% in the last 52 weeks, down from previous years. We will show more growth once we get the Cheesecake Bites in," said the wholesaler.
Innovative items are what keep the category going, retailers said. The Midwestern wholesaler mentioned a fruit item that comes in a bag preseasoned, which can be emptied into a pie shell. Pepperidge Farm brand is the most popular in the cake category, he added.
Set sizes vary according to the number of items that a particular store carries. The wholesaler's accounts have anywhere from five doors to one, or a 24-foot to an 8-foot coffin. About 30 different planograms are managed for the dessert sections of member stores.
Mad Butcher uses a mixture of both coffins and doors to merchandise cakes and pies, located close together, with the coffin case in the center between the doors.
"We try to tie in other merchandise with it, like the toppings, fruits and whipped creams," said Burks. "Normally, if we're doing pies, we're always going have an ice cream; we advertise them at featured prices."
Sometimes Mad Butcher will give away a half-gallon of private-label ice cream with the purchase of a pie. Burks said the stores have found that promotions like these are very successful.
Small, handheld desserts, such as pie slices from Edwards Gourmet Pie, are very popular with schoolchildren and others who carry their lunches, said Burks. His Mad Butcher stores do extremely well with this brand, which runs about $7 or $8 for whole pies but which Mad Butcher will feature for about $5 at times. Bill Adcox, grocery and frozen food buyer with Autry Greer & Sons, Pritchard, Ala., buys most of his cakes and pies from Fleming Cos., Oklahoma City. Size of the dessert section is 6 to 8 feet, mostly in coffin freezers. Mrs. Smith's sells best, he said.
''Normally, on those sweet goods, the holidays are key, like Valentine's and Mother's Day," said Adcox. "But the period coming up is the biggest. We run the larger sizes on special for the winter holidays. Normally, we put the warehouse charge and about 10% profit, so it's roughly 20%, whereas it's usually the warehouse charge plus 28%. If a pie cost $1, it would be $1.10 on sale. The regular selling price would be $1.53."
In most stores that Maglio has seen, the average frozen-cake and -pie section is from 8 to 12 feet. During the holiday season, the section usually increases or is enhanced with additional display cooler space, she said.
"In some of our larger stores, 20 feet is not unusual. The most appealing sets I've seen begin with whipped topping, shells and fruit, and then lead into pies and cakes."
Overall, she said, this is usually a Mrs. Smith's market. "However, over the years, the in-store bakeries and key price points of competing items have spread the sales over several companies. The past couple of years have not produced a clear advantage for any one brand," Maglio said.
This year was the first that Bozzuto's used a private-label brand -- IGA. Of the 250 stores served by the wholesaler, 100 have IGA banners. But the competitive pricing of some national and regional brands of frozen desserts has put a damper on private label's ability to position itself as the high-quality, low-cost alternative, she explained.
Maglio also noted that consumers are trending back toward full-fat desserts and indulgence items. Especially during the holidays, consumers like to entertain with full-indulgence items, such as the new Mrs. Smith's line of Restaurant Classics.
"Low-cal or health-conscious items definitely take a back seat until resolution week, around Jan. 1, rolls around," Maglio said.
According to Maglio, the key to a successful holiday selling season is actually getting back to the basics, which are key items and key prices during the key selling weeks. "Throughout the holiday season increased focus from the manufacturer with cross-promotional freestanding inserts and demos help to sell these items every day," she said.