ALBANY, N.Y. -- The frozen snack-food category in this market presents something of a challenge when it comes to merchandising.
Customers looking for frozen snacks in the Albany area will find snacks in one or several different areas of the frozens department, depending on the chain, or even the store.
During in-store visits, SN found that a significant amount of space -- usually between two and three doors -- is devoted to frozen snacks. But in many stores, snacks are also found in other sections of the freezer case, even when they are grouped together in their own section.
Dollar sales of frozen snacks in Albany soared 47% to $1.45 million, while unit sales jumped 44.7% to 659,385 for the 52-week period ended Nov. 3, 1996, according to Chicago-based Information Resources Inc. This is significant because the majority of the nation's other major cities posted much smaller gains, some only in the single digits.
Jim Mizeur, vice president of grocery for Price Chopper Supermarkets, headquartered in Schenectady, N.Y., attributes the increase in snack sales to a number of factors, but mainly to the demand for convenience foods.
"Snacks are a piece of home-meal replacement," Mizeur noted. "The average household today has significantly different eating habits than those in the past. This market as a whole has been growing very quickly.
"The family sits down to eat a meal together very infrequently, and you have a lot of heat-and-serve items. That's what HMR is about. And the quality of snack items has improved significantly."
To get a snapshot of frozen snacks, SN analyzed the three major area supermarket chains: Price Chopper, Grand Union and Hannaford Bros.-owned Shop 'n Save. Price Chopper took a more proactive stance on frozen snacks about 18 months ago, according to Mizeur.
"We expanded our thinking in terms of competition, and we didn't limit ourselves to retail grocers," he explained. The result is that Price Chopper now has more snack items available in the frozen-food case.
On more than one occasion, a look at this market raised the question, "What exactly is a snack, anyway?"
Poppers from Anchor, which are available in varieties like jalapenos stuffed with cheddar or cream cheese, were fairly straightforward candidates. So were zucchini and mozzarella sticks from Anchor and Giorgio; La Choy's miniature egg rolls; Ore Ida's Bagel Bites, Cheese Bites, Hot Bites and Dyna Bites; and President's Choice Savory Cocktail Rolls.
Nancy's Mushroom Turnovers, Gourmet Appetizers, Assorted Tartlets and Petite Quiche also fall neatly into the snack category. These items were available in Albany-area stores, as were Giorgio's mini-pierogies, Ruiz Fiesta Pack Mexican appetizers, Totino's Pizza Rolls and Hot Pockets Pizza Snacks, and SuperPretzel soft pretzels and Cinnamon Raisin Minis.
But all the stores also carried handheld sandwiches like Hot Pockets, Lean Pockets, Croissant Pockets and Healthy Choice Hearty Handfuls in the snack section.
Red Baron's Pizza Pouches, Pastry Pouches, and Deli Pouches and McCain Ellio's Pizza Pockets were also common pocket sandwich items. For the health-conscious, Amy's sandwiches and Ken and Robert's Veggie Pockets were available in a few locations. Price Chopper and, more recently, Grand Union have created their own brands of the ever-popular pockets.
More traditional burger, chicken and fish sandwiches, mostly from Hormel and MicroMagic, also qualified as snacks, along with ethnic "sandwiches" like burritos and enchiladas from Goya, Tina's, Tumaro's (an organic line) and Las Campanas. Burritos were packaged as single, double and multiple servings. The eight- or 10-packs were usually merchandised alongside the smaller sizes in the freezer case.
Egg rolls from Minh, La Choy and Pagoda Cafe -- sometimes single servings and sometimes three to a pack -- were also in the snack section, along with Nancy's larger size (6-ounce) single-serving quiches and Deep brand Indian samosas.
Some more unlikely items mixed in with snacks included Tabatchnick, Campbell and Progresso brand soups; Indian entrees and breads; Amy's entrees and desserts; Celentano's Vegetarian Selects (entrees); and Wolfgang Puck's California Pizza.
Price Chopper's Super Center at Shoppers' World Plaza in Clifton Park had snacks in the pizza section, as well as in a two-door microwave section, while a smaller store on Gerling Avenue, Schenectady, had them between entrees and potatoes, with no sign.
Another large store, the Price Chopper Market Center on Central Avenue in Albany, displayed snacks in the international section, while the Market Center in Latham had a three-door snack section labeled "microwave."
When asked whether stores will eventually have a snack flag, Mizeur pointed out that the category is currently in a state of flux.
"We try to break it down in the way the customer views it," he said. "We haven't identified [snacks] well enough for them yet, but we're working on that. Part of the reason is that we've spun our category management a little differently than the average retailer. We try to break out the categories based on the customer and the way they see them in grocery."
Grand Union doesn't mark many of its frozen-food categories, including snacks, said Kevin Miller, category manager for frozens.
In the Grand Union Superstore in Clifton Park, snacks were between entrees and international foods, while the new Grand Union in Niskayuna placed snacks beyond the international sign, where they could be construed as belonging to that category.
In the Albany store on Western Avenue, the snacks were again between entrees and international, while at the Latham store on Delatour Road, they once again looked like they were part of the international category.
At two Shop 'n Save stores -- Central Avenue, Albany, and Latham -- snacks were marked clearly, while in the Niskayuna and Clifton Park stores they were unlabeled. Shop 'n Save declined to speak with SN.
In a few stores, Totino's Pizza Rolls could be found in the Pizza section, even if the rest of the snacks were somewhere else. Almost all stores featured club- or family-pack sections, which carried several varieties of snack items, mainly the 40-ounce Bagel Bites from Ore Ida. Most stores also had kosher sections, which featured snacks like blintzes, breaded mushrooms and assorted hors d'oeuvres.
All three chains were running snack deals when SN visited the Albany area in late January. At Price Chopper, most sales fell into one of two categories: "Everyday Low Price, Good 'Til Easter," or a temporary price reduction with the store's AdvantEdge card.
EDLP sales included some varieties of Ore Ida Dyna Bites, Bagel Bites and Cheese Bites (7-ounce packs), three for $5; Farm Rich Four Cheese Sticks (7 ounces), $2.29; Minh egg rolls, three for $2; Old El Paso burritos, two for $1; MicroMagic cheeseburger, $1.19; Hormel Quick Meals (bacon cheeseburger, grilled chicken and fish fillet), three for $4; Pita Stuffs (chicken and pizza gyros), two for $5; and Nancy's 6-ounce quiche, $1.99 each. SuperPretzel's soft pretzels and Cinnamon Raisin Minis were on special at $1.69 with the AdvantEdge shopping card, as well as Farm Rich mozzarella sticks (7 ounces), $1.99; Red Baron Pizza, Pastry and Deli Pouches, two packages for $4.98; and Tina's Burritos, three for 99 cents.
A 14-ounce bag of Anchor stuffed jalapenos was on a "clearance sale" in one store for $2.79.
Price Chopper Pocket Delights -- beef 'n cheddar and chicken fajita (9 ounces) -- were regularly $1.88 and advertised as the "Price Chopper Brand, Compare & Save. The Only Difference Is Price."
Price Chopper made use of shelf talkers inside the upright freezer doors, where snacks were displayed, to call attention to EDLPs and AdvantEdge deals. For the most part, all items were clearly marked. Some additional 6-inch-by-12-inch signs were pasted on the outside of freezer doors.
In the Albany store, an additional snack bunker was set up as an endcap on the freezer coffin. A 6-inch-by-12-inch sign called attention to these items, which included some of the snacks on special, as well as store-brand chicken wings and nuggets and Campbell's Tomato Pasta Florentine soup.
Grand Union had essentially two kinds of promotions: "Red Dot" specials, and coupons for 75 cents or $1 off a customer's next order, when a promoted item was purchased.
Red Dot items included Hormel sandwiches, at two for $3; McCain Ellio's Pizza and Sandwich Pockets, two for $5; Red Baron Pizza and Pastry Pouches, at $2.79 but with a $1 off the next order when buying two; and Ore Ida Dyna Bites for $1.79, but with 75 cents off toward the next order when buying two.
Old El Paso Burritos were marked two for $1 as a "new lower price."
The Grand Union stores did not put signs on their freezer doors. In the superstore in Clifton Park, signs appeared on the green border that ran above the freezer doors and down the length of either side of the aisle.
This unit and the one in Niskayuna had aisle signs, freezer flags and other elements of interior design done in green and yellow. A green and white awning set over the frozen aisle gave it a country look, despite the fact that the aisle, from coffin to doors on either side, was extremely wide.
Shop 'n Save stores used "Same Great Price, Week After Week" and "Same Low Price, Week After Week" promotions.
Snack items on special through these programs included many varieties of Hot Pockets, Croissant Pockets and Lean Pockets and Twin Pack Pizza Snacks for $1.97; White Castle hamburgers, 6-pack, for $2.95; MicroMagic cheeseburger and bacon cheeseburger for 98 cents; and Red Baron Pizza, Pastry and Deli Pouches for $1.99.
At the Shop 'n Save in Albany, a separate door was devoted exclusively to Red Baron pouches on deal. A 6-inch-by-12-inch sign announced "Same Great Price, Week After Week."
Shop 'n Save was most conscientious about labeling new stockkeeping units with "new item" tags to call them to customers' attention.
This chain also kept the glass on the freezer doors clear and usually posted external signs in some other prominent place. All three chains made liberal use of shelf talkers inside the freezer doors and had labels with unit cost and retail price for almost every item.
Almost all the stores SN visited were superstores, and they were well lit, attractively designed and easy to maneuver in. Stores were clean, and shelves well-stocked and organized, for the most part, but a discernible difference was noticeable in the neatness of the shelves, which seemed to correlate with the time of day. Not surprisingly, disarrayed shelves, where they were found, were observed in late afternoon or evening.
The most visible evidence that Albany loves snacks turned up at the BJ's Wholesale Club in Rotterdam, where 10 doors in a large frozens department were given over to a dazzling variety of hors d'oeuvres.
In addition to the larger pack sizes of popular snacks also carried by the supermarkets, such as Ore Ida Bagel Bites, BJ's featured more exotic fare, such as Boston Natural Gourmet Mini Stuffed Breads, Minh Cream Cheese Wonton and Dragon Tears (spicy pork egg rolls) and Dutch Mini Cream Puffs.
Also on hand at the wholesale club were Tyson club packs of chicken wings and Barber Stuffed Chicken Appetizers, Nancy's hors d'oeuvres, and Jac Pac's Swedish, Turkey and Italian meatballs. There was also a good selection of Cohen's kosher snacks.
"Snacks do very well all year-round, but better during the holidays and the summer," said Chris Kane, BJ's general manager.
Supermarkets in the Albany area were competitive with the BJ's in Rotterdam when it came to pricing on family packs. For example, the 40-pack Bagel Bites were $6.49 at both BJ's and Price Chopper, and $5.99 at Shop 'n Save. Ore Ida Jalapenos with Cream Cheese (3 pounds) were $9.59 at both the BJ's and Price Chopper. SuperPretzel, 25-pack, could be found at all three supermarkets, from $3.99 to $4.99, but SN did not see them at BJ's. Nonetheless, BJ's had a wide selection of items, and the supermarkets could not compete with the wholesaler's variety in club packs.