NEW YORK -- With Halloween just around the corner, produce managers have once again made room for displays of pumpkins and other harvest-related items sold primarily for their decorative and craft appeal.
"Pumpkins are a moneymaker and a big business," said Gary Wesely, produce director for the 10-store independent No Frills Supermarkets, Omaha, Neb., who revealed that any one of his stores might go through as many as 50 to 80 bins -- containing between 40 and 45 units of fruit -- per season. But it's not only the revenue that makes retailers glow like jack o' lanterns.
Some category managers like Paul Widerburg, Lamb's Thriftway, Portland, Ore., capture the Halloween spirit and make pumpkin-related contests and kid-centered events part of the merchandising. For yet other retailers, like Kowalski's Markets, St. Paul, Minn., these items simply signal to consumers a way to transition from summer to fall.
For Wesely, with more than 30 years in the produce field, pumpkin season starts mid-September. He prefers the 10-pound "basketball" size that he buys from local farmers whenever possible. The pumpkins arrive in large, palletized, cardboard bins decorated in fall motifs that he describes as "eye-catching." With a selling price of 2 for $5, he said the units move so fast that his produce associates simply rotate the bins and send the empty ones back to the growers.
Wesely has noticed a surge in sales of the white "lumina" pumpkin, a strong-handled variety weighing between 10 and 12 pounds with bright orange flesh that contrasts nicely with its pale shell.
"Luminas are more of a novelty item and they've become very popular in the two or three seasons I've carried them," he said. "People paint ghosts on them." He's also forecasting a good sales season for large, ornamental gourds.
Kids and decorating are the prime movers of pumpkin purchases, according to Wesely. "I've seen families come in and buy a separate pumpkin for each of their children," he said, adding that pumpkin carving can be an inexpensive family activity.
"People buy them to decorate their porches, and office workers and secretaries often buy the minis to decorate their desktops. All you need are some mini-pumpkins, gourds and Indian corn in a basket and you've got a nice fall display."
At Lamb's Thriftway, Widerburg, a 25-year produce veteran and professional cartoonist better known in his community as "Uncle Paul," also immerses himself in the festivities.
But Widerburg sees the season as a time to celebrate, rather than cash in. So, although he moves a lot of product annually -- 15 truckloads holding four tons apiece -- he chooses to sell his pumpkins, which he gets from local growers, at about 9 cents a pound, only about a penny higher than cost.
Central to the 53,000-square-foot store's holiday events -- heavily publicized with in-store flyers and posters, as well as road signs -- is an annual pumpkin coloring contest, for which Widerburg the cartoonist creates the drawing. He traditionally sketches himself into the motif which, over the years, has included bats, Frankenstein, mummies, goblins and ghosts. Last year, 600 kids and 300 adults entered the contest, including one grown-up who submitted an oil painting of the sketch. The store's cashiers choose the winners, each of whom receives one of 15, Uncle Paul-painted, 100-pound Big Max pumpkins.
"I don't paint mean pumpkins," Widerburg said. "And we help the winners load them into the car, and hope they don't get a hernia when they get home."
In addition to all-day games, the store also sponsors a Safe Trick or Treating program, where every child can go to a category manager for a candy treat, bob for apples in Widerburg's produce department, or decorate Halloween cookies at the in-store bakery. In the past, the store has held a competition for the best pumpkin decorated with vegetables -- the contestants are his own produce staff -- which may entail the use of cherry tomatoes for eyes, or gourds for noses.
Outside the store, a man-made pumpkin patch is set up, replete with hay bales, Indian corn stalks, giant sunflowers and decorated pumpkins.
"Anything you can do to draw people into your store is good," he said, noting that bringing in new customers "gets the cost back."
Kowalski's Markets had the same idea. Last year, the then-newly opened Woodbury store partnered with a local radio station which had bought about 1,000 pumpkins from a distributor to give away in the store's parking lot. Announcers kept repeating the store's name over the air waves.
"It created good will," said Larry Mauren, produce manager at the time. He noted that over the years, the chain has engaged in holiday activities ranging from guessing the weight of a pumpkin, to hiring a local artist to carve the Kowalski's logo into the fruit for display in the produce area.
Kowalski's also creates an outside pumpkin area each year, and Mauren said it's the only feasible option.
"It's hard to display them in a mass way in the produce area," he said. "The down side of creating a meaningful display in the store is the sheer bulk of the pumpkins."
Also, some of the in-store scales are unable to handle large-weight items. It's better to leave the pumpkins outside with a standard pricing for small, medium and large sizes, he suggested, and have customers pay for the item in the store without dragging the pumpkin with them. However, Mauren said, creating an outdoor area for the pumpkins and other decorative items does make them a good target for theft.
The only blight on retail pumpkin sales may be the competition from local growers with stores and real-life pumpkin patches that become a destination for families. Wesely said this competition from dedicated pumpkin retailers is one of the reasons he keeps his prices down.
Karen Randall, owner of a specialty food store and farm in Ludlow, Mass., said that prices for her pumpkins have held steady at about 29 cents a pound for the past five years. With a large farmer's porch and a mound of earth on which to set her crops, Randall said she offers a very large variety, in addition to on-site holiday workshops and contests.
Linda Lazaroff, a manager at Lazaroff Gardens, a garden store in Brooklyn Park, Minn., said that stores like hers simply market their product better. She displays her own crops -- they're either brushed or wiped clean, and retail for 25 cents a pound this season -- atop tables that create "a sea of orange" for consumers.
"They're the cream of the crop," she said, adding that large supermarkets often have limited space for a large volume of pumpkins. She noted that pumpkins that are "tastefully displayed and easily accessible," are much nicer to shop than when you're "having to dig through a bin." But perhaps even more importantly, Lazaroff says, supermarkets often forget that these items are perishable.
"If you carry them around by their handles, it's like picking up your child by his hair. And when pumpkins are smashed or crushed at the store by poor handling, it gives the growers a bad name," she said. "Pumpkins are not luggage."