Many retailers have taken to promoting Back-to-School earlier and earlier in the year, although the big push for food still takes place the first week that school is in session. "The day school starts, everything gets flipped around. Everyone has to be somewhere, every minute, and it really changes how people shop," said Scott Anderson, store manager of County Market, Worthington, Minn.
Some have noticed that there is less business in the traditional lunchbox items, as schoolchildren opt for the more convenient and "cool" choice of buying the school lunch. However, after-school snacking remains a big opportunity, retailers said.
Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., uses the month of August and the first couple of weeks in September to advertise and merchandise the Back-to-School/Back-to-the-Dorm business, as Phillip Schneider, vice president, Center Store, calls it. It starts with pens, pencils, desktop calculators and the like, and moves into food items a little later.
This year, Big Y is placing additional emphasis on the stores that have colleges and universities close by, Schneider said, including towns with smaller community colleges. Two locations that really target this trade are the Amherst, Mass., store, near the University of Massachusetts campus, and the Mansfield, Conn., store, near UConn in Storrs.
For this retailer, Back-to-School foodstuffs include juices, sandwich accoutrements, snacking and lunchbox items, big packages of single-serve cookies and snacks, and dorm products like cleaning materials, light bulbs and so forth.
Plenty of cross merchandising goes on, Schneider said, with general merchandise items displayed right in the middle of the traffic pattern, or the middle of the store, in most Big Y stores.
At times in the past, Big Y provided vans to shuttle students from campus to the grocery aisle, according to a Big Y spokeswoman, Missy Lajoie.
One way to encourage parents to continue making school lunch is to suggest ideas to make creative, nutritious and economical lunches, as Joan Zeckler, corporate dietitian for Albertson's Florida division, did in Albertson's Big Book of Bonus Buy Savings. Some of her ideas include packing popcorn instead of potato chips, to cut down on fat, using a melon scooper to shape fruit into shapes of different colors, and using a cookie cutter to cut sandwiches.
She also recommends packing veggies and dip that can be kept cold with blue ice packs, also available in the supermarket.
Fruit juice boxes can be frozen overnight to use to keep the lunch safe and cool, Zeckler pointed out. "And a healthy breakfast is still important," she said. "They can choose cereal bars if they're on the go. It has been shown that kids do better in school if they have had breakfast."
Melissa Buoscio, the dietitian for Albertson's Jewel division in Chicago, also places emphasis on "The Lunchbox ABC's," using TV appearances, in-store brochures and in-store classes and tours to promote healthy eating for the family. For Back-to-School, she does programs on lunch box nutrition, using A for "Ask," B for "Bargain," and C for "Cater," to help parents make sure the lunch they send to school is the lunch their child eats. One in four children throws away or trades his lunch, Buoscio told SN. Asking children to help plan and prepare the lunch ensures more ownership of it, and increases the likelihood that they will actually eat it. The "Bargain" part asks the parent to teach the child how to include the less nutritious, higher fat, higher sugar treats by balancing them with other nutrient-rich foods. "One of the ways to do that is to pack small sized treats, like fun size candy bars, or single-serve chips, and stick with one treat per day," Buoscio said." This teaches that no foods are 'bad."' C stands for Cater, as in catering to the child by making the lunch fun and appealing. She suggests shelf stable fruit bowls or applesauce, raisin boxes and using whole grain crackers and lean meats.
"A big part of what I do is promoting that 'All Foods Can Fit.' Center Store gets a bad rap. I think that's the biggest misconception I face, that there are 'good' and 'bad' foods," said Buoscio. "That is the main message that I try to drive home, that this is not so."
An A&P store in Cliffwood Beach, N.J., is working the school angle by planning to tie in a child safety program in conjunction with Kraft Foods' Kool-Aid. Called Kindervision, the program videotapes the children for identification purposes, according to Susan Hamilton, director of customer marketing for the Atlantic region, for the Montvale, N.J.- based chain.
"We really aren't doing anything brand new," Hamilton said. "But the circular ads have attractive gatefolds promoting general merchandise products. Our ads will be focused on BTS right through September." Juice boxes and the like will be placed in the Seasonal Values section along with notebooks, filler paper and other grocery items.
The focus is more on the mom, since "that's our target," Hamilton said. "What's driven business the most in the past is our circular ads, and when we group the BTS items together, and use point-of-sale materials in the store, those two together drive the business."
Sampling of products also ties into the theme. A&P is planning to conduct Back-to-School sampling with ZipLoc sandwich bags, Mrs. Field's chocolate chip cookies, General Mills cereals -- such as Lucky Charms -- and even Kimberly-Clark Huggies wipes and refills, for the back-to-day care crowd, according to Hamilton.
Ross Nixon, vice president of merchandising, Dahl's Food Markets, Des Moines, Iowa, told SN in early August that Back-to-School supplies had been out two weeks already, and fliers were in the stores announcing price points. Kids in that city start school Aug. 20, "so we actually addressed it in the very latter part of July. It's a few days earlier than usual."
He said items like Hostess Twinkies and Oscar Mayer Lunchables and sandwich makings "are a little bit bigger deal. But it's not what it used to be. Quite a few kids still pack a lunch, but most of them eat a school lunch or eat out," Nixon said.
Anderson, the store manager at County Market, said kids in that area go back to school right after Labor Day. Promotions, though, "keep getting earlier and earlier, like Halloween and Christmas. I don't know where that whole cycle will end." This year was the first time his store ever displayed and advertised Back-to-School items in July.
But, he added, "We don't plan the grocery part till later, almost the week before, when we start putting the lunch box stuff out, the pudding cups, the single-serve snacks, fruit snacks, granola bars, peanut butter and jelly, lunch meats; basically box lunch stuff and after-school snacky things, including some frozen items. That's when we will make our big push into pizza again.
"We do our own POS stuff, tied to the GM right now, and we will try to incorporate that through the entire store as we get closer to the day and first week of school. It takes one week till people realize it, it comes so fast. They may have the shoes and clothes and notebooks bought, but they haven't thought about the food yet."
For K-VA-T Food City stores, Abingdon, Va., the key to a successful 2001 Back-To-School selling season was bringing general merchandise into its warehouse rather than purchasing it from an outside supplier for the first time. This made pricing on those items more competitive, and made for much better tie-ins of BTS grocery items with notebook paper and other accessories, said Danny Helton, vice president of merchandising for the 90-store chain.
Snack pack puddings, cereal, lunch bags, Kraft Handy Snacks crackers and Little Debbie cakes are some of the primary items cross merchandised with school supplies, Helton said. "And we came out earlier this year than we have in the past. Usually we wait till mid-August, but this year it was the last two weeks of July and first week of August, so we've done more promoting and earlier than usual," Helton said.
Sales results are a lot better than they have been in the past, too, he added. "I have been in some stores, and it seems like we've had a better Back-to-School sell-through." Betty Crocker Squeez-its, 6-packs of drinks in plastic containers, have been one of the outstanding sellers, he added.
K-VA-T has done more advertising on radio and TV this year, too, more than in the past three or four years, Helton said, which may be another reason for increased sales.
Using its frequent shopper card, K-VA-T has also given away eight Apple computers through Aurora Foods (maker of Duncan Hines mixes and Mrs. Butterworth syrup, among other brands), and a $20,000 scholarship, also through Aurora Foods, St. Louis, Mo. Miguel Gutierrez, manager of public affairs for Albertson's Southern California division, in Fullerton, Calif., said the stores are offering tickets to Disneyland for outstanding students in Los Angeles and doing refrigerator giveaways with products inside the refrigerator, at 22 stores. Also on a Back-to-School theme, Gutierrez said Albertson's is contacting a total of 30 schools in the area and giving away incentive programs at the stores, which include Disney tickets, gift certificates, and Dodgers, Angels and Padres memorabilia. All of this will help drive traffic through Center Store, he said.
Frank Di Pasquale, senior vice president of the National Grocers Association, Arlington, Va., noted that he continues to "hear and read more about how retailers are successfully merchandising, not just to high schoolers and grade schoolers, but to the young adults who are dorming, and are working with suppliers to put some nice packages together."
Younger kids below the university level enjoy cooking more and more, according to Di Pasquale, who credited the Food Channel and, in particular, chef Emeril Legasse.
"Cooking has become very popular, not for Gen X or Y but that next generation, or the tail-end of Gen Y, the kids who are 12 to 16 or 17 now. The Food Channel, and Emeril in particular, have really captured the imagination of America's youth," said Di Pasquale.