The approach of Thanksgiving kicks off prime time for sales in retail bakeries.
To build traffic during the holiday season, retailers feature prominent signature products, dramatic displays, tastings that introduce customers to lesser-known ethnic favorites and community-oriented events.
“What a time to introduce new products — or just show everybody what you have,” said Carl Richardson, a Rochester, Mich.-based bakery consultant and veteran of the supermarket industry. “There's that huge volume of traffic.”
Retailers said their in-store bakery sales always surge starting right before Thanksgiving up to Christmas.
“Most in-store bakeries go up a 0.25% at least of total store sales during the holidays,” Richardson said. “For instance, if they've been contributing 2.5% percent to store sales, that'll go up to at least 2.75%.”
During the holiday season, in-store bakery sales at Riesbeck's, St. Clairsville, Ohio, surge 40% over a normal week, officials there said.
The holiday volume is sometimes daunting and it has spurred bakery directors and managers at Riesbeck's and elsewhere to plan way ahead this year to make sure they have what their customers might want.
“We got bombarded last year two days before Christmas,” said Sharon Wullenwebber, bakery manager at Jungle Jim's International Market, a food mecca just north of Cincinnati in Fairfield, Ohio.
“We had a snowstorm earlier in the week last Christmas week and it seemed like everybody did their shopping the day before Christmas Eve. We actually ran out of bread.”
The store has ordered a second artisan-bread oven and Wullenwebber is hoping it will be delivered before Thanksgiving.
“We learned a lesson last year,” she said. “We do make our bread from scratch and it takes longer to replenish bread displays than it does sweet goods.”
The retailer's ISB, for years primarily a bread and roll operation, introduced service counters featuring sweet goods five years ago and decided to make most products from scratch or source particularly high-end products, Wullenwebber said.
Right now, associates are making fruitcakes and stollen, holiday favorites with customers. While fruitcakes may not top shopping lists in other parts of the country, they're popular at Jungle Jim's. The store sold at least 300 between Thanksgiving and Christmas last year.
“And we make a big thing of our Amish display. There, we have a lot of pumpkin items we make from Amish recipes. We just keep it filled up. Everything pumpkin — pumpkin bars, pumpkin log rolls, pumpkin quick bread — sells well this time of year,” Wullenwebber said.
Dramatic presentation makes a difference, too. It doesn't have to be a unique item or even a store-made item if it's presented with aplomb.
For example, Jungle Jim's puts the spotlight this time of year on a 12-foot, double-shelf service case dedicated entirely to a temptingly huge variety of cheesecake, cut in slices. There are 40 varieties, including pumpkin, of course, but also triple mousse and raspberry velvet, among others.
The upscale, precut cakes are sourced from outside, and presented on trays. Slices are separated by tissue paper to make it easy for associates to box them and also to make it obvious they're for sale by the slice — at $3.29 each.
Drama is certainly in the air at Miracle Mart stores in Minot, N.D., as the holidays approach. Just after Thanksgiving, the three Miracle Marts in Minot, part of a nine-unit independent chain based in Bemidji, Minn., will run a full-page ad in the local daily paper. The ad will invite the community to Miracle Mart's First Annual Cookie Extravaganza.
The stores will line up three 8-foot tables and heap them high with every variety of holiday cookie anyone could possibly think of.
“The sheer volume, the heaped tables, will be the eye-catcher,” said Sunnie Guraedy, bakery manager at one of the stores.
People just don't bake Christmas cookies at home like they used to and Miracle Mart is taking advantage of that trend. In fact, one line in the ad says, “Let Miracle Mart do your holiday baking for you.”
The retailer outsources the cookies. “They are very high quality,” Guraedy said. “If we tried to bake them ourselves, we wouldn't be able to keep up with demand.”
The cookies, in all varieties, will be sold for one across-the-board, by-the-pound price, but the stores hadn't set the retail yet when SN talked to Guraedy early this month.
Miracle Mart bakeries, too, will feature several made-from-scratch, Scandinavian baked goods for the holidays, Guraedy said.
“We'll have yulekaga and kuchen. Yulekaga is like a sweet bread with candied fruit and kuchen has the texture of a custard pie,” she said.
The town of 36,000 people has a sizeable Scandinavian population, and even has its own Scandinavian heritage center, she said.
Already, during the first week of November, bakers at Riesbeck's were turning out nut rolls and poppy seed rolls for the holidays. They're favorites with the Polish community that surrounds many of Riesbeck's stores.
“We're making them ahead right now and freezing them to bake later,” said John Chickery, bakery director at the 15-store chain. “If we didn't do that, we couldn't keep up during that time between Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
The rolls are made from pie-like dough and filled with nuts and sugar and hit the scale at about 20 ounces, maybe a little more. They retail for $7.99.
“Customers just expect us to have these,” Chickery said. “The nut rolls, though, outsell the poppy seed by 8-to-1. I guess unless you've grown up with poppy seed rolls you don't really take to them.”
Nevertheless, the rolls help set Riesbeck's apart from other supermarkets in this highly competitive market. The retailer is the only chain in the area to offer them, Chickery said.
“We have a fellow that drives here from Toledo — nearly four hours away — every Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter to get them. He'll call in an order usually for 10 nut rolls and five poppy seed.”
Chickery pointed out, too, that Riesbeck's butter cookies are also a destination.
“Our bakery sales are big during the holidays, up 40% at least over a regular week, but it's not just the bakery that benefits,” he said, noting that the bakery's mix of destination products gives sales in other store departments a lift.
In addition to its unique products, Riesbeck's, like others, stocks up on shelf-stable pumpkin pies.
But they're so price sensitive in the marketplace, the margin drops to 28% to 29%.
To counteract that low margin and balance off total profits, retailers tweak some everyday, easy-to-make favorites that are always moneymakers. One high-volume product that fits that profile is the cream cake, Richardson and Chickery said.
“Everybody has them and they're so easy,” Richardson said. “You just restyle them a little. You can make some of them larger and add holiday flavors like eggnog and cranberry.”
Indeed, at Riesbeck's, Chickery is featuring cream cakes in ads, some with a holiday flair, three times before Thanksgiving, he said. “We'll make 30 pounds of batter, put cranberry flavoring in 10 pounds, chocolate chip in 10 and maybe blueberry in 10. They're great. At $3.59 each, I'm taking a margin of 80% to 85%.”
To get ready as Riesbeck's has, by making and freezing nut rolls ahead of time, retailers are increasing their labor early. The first week in November, Chickery said he'd already boosted labor hours in the bakery by 20% and that'll go up between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Since customers don't call in orders much any more, like they did years ago, it's incumbent upon retailers to have enough variety and volume to satisfy last-minute shoppers, SN's sources said.
United Supermarkets, Lubbock, Texas, gets a lot of attention at holiday time with a pie-eating contest at one of its stores. The contest involves city luminaries and usually a United official, and is covered by a local TV station. This year, the event actually kicks off United's fourth annual Meals on Wheels fund-raising effort called “Easy As Pie,” said Eddie Owens, the 48-unit chain's director of corporate communications.
“We kick it off this coming Thursday,” Owens said. “The Meals on Wheels people have a table at our stores and any customer who gives at least $5 to Meals on Wheels gets a coupon for a free 8-inch pumpkin or apple pie from our bakery.”