Ghostly baked goods, turkey-frying rigs, walk-in gingerbread houses and crab-shaped bread bowls are helping retailers make the most of the year's biggest selling season.
The season starts with Halloween and officially ends with New Year's, but once on a roll, retailers even stretch their merchandising acumen to cover Super Bowl Sunday in January. The end-of-year period is one of the best palettes from which operators can draw inspiration for attention-getting merchandising.
Mollie Stone's Markets, for instance, starts off the holiday months each year with a Halloween decorating contest that pits its stores against one another.
"It's a lot of fun to come into our stores the weeks before Halloween. There are costumes and props and animation. Everybody loves it," said David Bennett, co-owner of the seven-unit, upscale independent, based in Mill Valley, Calif. "They want to see what we're doing. Stores are in competition, and there are prizes."
However, it's not the size of the giant spiders or the number of ghosts that mark the winning Mollie Stone's unit. The contest has a clear business goal: The champ is the store that achieves the biggest year-to-date sales increase overall in the weeks preceding Halloween.
Looking toward Thanksgiving and Christmas, retailers said they're making the latter a red-meat holiday, and are putting a special twist on turkeys they offer for Thanksgiving so it's not just a promotional giveaway.
Some, like Farm Fresh, Virginia Beach, Va., will get under way right after Halloween with some new bread items destined to become signature offerings in their in-store bakeries.
For the first time, Farm Fresh's ISBs will showcase sculptured bread in the shape of Christmas trees and bells, officials at the 36-unit, Supervalu-supplied chain said. Yet most notably, one of the chain's new items, which reflects its Chesapeake Bay roots, will probably have a good run throughout the holiday entertaining season. It's a bread loaf shaped like a crab, hollowed out to make an edible bowl for dip.
Whatever their newly spotlighted products, retailers are aiming to give customers more convenience and more value, they told SN.
Deep-fried turkeys aren't hard to sell -- certainly not in the South. The only problem is keeping up with demand, one Louisiana supermarket operator said. But he's taking care of that.
With a retail price of $27 to $30 for a 10 to 12-pound fried turkey, there's a big incentive to give customers all they want, so Rouses Markets has designed a double-high cooking rig on a 20-foot, flat-bed utility trailer that can fry 48 turkeys all at once.
"We've never been able to fry this many turkeys at the same time. The most has been four or maybe five at a time, and this also is the first time we'll be frying them in the parking lot," said Donald Rouse, president/co-owner of the 16-unit Thibodaux, La., independent.
"We're having Fried Turkey Fridays now to get people thinking fried turkey for Thanksgiving, and thinking of us. We'll be demoing it in the parking lot. We'll take the rig to our newest store first and park it right in front, and then we may move it around to other stores," Rouse said.
The mobile setup -- a production center and marketing tool all in one -- will be used to keep up with orders at other Rouses units, especially at Thanksgiving. Rouse said he expects to double sales of fried turkeys over last year, and he foresees brisk sales of the crispy birds throughout the holidays, even for Super Bowl Sunday.
The deep-fried turkey craze, spreading out to other parts of the country over the last few years, has recently hit California.
Indeed, Bennett at Mollie Stone's said he was surprised last year that customers kept asking for small turkeys. Making some inquiries, he found out they were trying their hand at deep-frying them.
"Christmas has become a red-meat holiday for us, but last year I noticed a big demand, too, for smaller turkeys. People would order maybe New York strip wrapped in bacon, or a prime rib and also a small turkey," Bennett said.
"Meat sales for us have been growing very nicely ever since we started positioning red meat for Christmas. Since we got away from the common turkey and ham for Christmas, meat sales have improved 15% to 20%. Naturally, there's been some cannibalization," he said.
However, retailers don't mind that red-meat sales are displacing some turkey sales. Items like prime rib roasts and crown roasts with booties carry a high margin, and a spin on them can set a retailer apart from others in the same market area. Stauffer's of Kissel Hill, a Lititz, Pa.-based independent, takes that route for Christmas and New Year's. As a result, its meat sales have grown steadily over the last five years, but Thanksgiving is strictly a turkey holiday, said John Gerlach, meat buyer and merchandiser for the four-unit retailer.
"Even so, we don't get into the price wars when it comes to Thanksgiving turkeys. We have the biggest selection of turkeys of anyone around here, but we concentrate on our private-label SKH turkeys that we have grown for us. The retail is about $2. People order them way ahead of time. In fact, we already have some orders now for Thanksgiving. We have a free-range turkey, too, that's well over $2 a pound," Gerlach said.
Stauffer's of Kissel Hill has noticed each year that more people want their turkey cooked for them, and while the stores have obliged them, this year there will be an all-out effort to market cooked dinners. Television and radio ads are part of the plan.
"Until now, it's been on an as-needed basis [on requests], but this year we've bought big boxes with handles, and we're putting a push on cooked turkey dinners. We didn't have the right packaging before. These new boxes will hold a good-sized turkey and about four side dishes -- about the equivalent of 48 ounces of sides, for instance," said Mike Huegel, the independent's deli/bakery buyer and merchandiser.
"We don't want to tell them they have to take a green bean casserole whether they want it or not. They might want long-cut, shredded coleslaw or more cranberry relish. We'll custom-build a holiday dinner for them. Actually, it doesn't even have to be a holiday dinner. We're going to suggest these dinners for any occasion, like a family get-together of any kind, anytime."
The dinners will be one of the stars on the weekend of Nov. 15, when the company holds its annual "Holiday Showcase."
For the event, each of the stores sets up a 20-foot, staffed table up front to show off what it's offering for the holidays, and a $5 discount is offered on any orders that are placed that weekend.
"We print a nice brochure each year that we hand out at the table. And we'll have a whole, roasted turkey there to demo, and some side dishes and party platters. We customize party platters, too. If a customer wants a special Tuscan cheese on their platter, we'll see that they get it. We also have flowers at the 'Showcase' table. We have a good floral division," Huegel said.
Other retailers around the country take the opportunity sometime in November to put their holiday offerings in the spotlight with a special event. Market Place Food & Drug, a seven-unit, Bemidji, Minn.-based independent, has been very successful with such an all-day event at its flagship store in Minot, N.D. For its storewide "Taste of the Holidays," the company invites vendors -- small local operations as well as big suppliers like Pillsbury -- to participate.
This year, like Farm Fresh in Virginia Beach, Market Place will introduce some new bread items, including a wicker basket with a variety of mini loaves of its Old World breads. And this year, as it was last year, the big attention-getter will be a huge gingerbread house, created by the company's cake department manager and prize-winning cake decorator Nyla Stromberg [see "Take the Cake," SN, Aug. 11, 2003]. The 30-square-foot house is 5.5 feet tall, and sits on a 4-by-8 sheet of plywood, Stromberg said.