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    FRESH FOOD: Holiday Perishables: Season's eatings

    It's the perimeter's time to shine, but the good tidings could last all year long.

    Sharing good times and good food with family and friends is what the Thanksgiving and winter holidays are all about. Those goods times also call for frequent trips to the grocery store, and that gives smart retailers the chance to shine brightly in the hearts and minds of their customers, by helping them create more memorable holiday meals -- and many happy returns to the bottom line in the bargain.

    To be sure, supermarkets have long relied heavily on the final quarter of the calendar year to meet -- and, better still, exceed -- their projected per annum numbers. In the remaining weeks leading up to the imminent holiday rush, stellar-sales-seeking retailers would be wise to check their lists twice for proper preparation and aggressive strategizing.

    The focus should stay on the consumer, say industry observers, especially now, as other pressures might weigh down the holiday spirit.

    "Retailers may encounter some interesting challenges [in] grabbing consumers' attention this year," says Karen Boillot, director of retail marketing for the Des Moines, Iowa-based National Pork Board. "All across the country, consumers are dealing with a lot of economic pressures," among them rising home heating prices, unpredictable gasoline prices, and escalating housing costs. Boillot says retailers are in a perfect position "to help ease consumers' anxiety, at least in regards to holiday meal planning." The tools at their disposal include well-crafted in-store promotions and sharp signage, combined with a series of strong features throughout the store.

    Specialty food retailer Balducci's Food Lover's Market is up for the challenge. The Bethesda, Md.-based gourmet operator, with 10 stores and four restaurants in Virginia, the District of Columbia, Maryland, New York, and Connecticut, is one of many quality-oriented retailers around the nation that relish the opportunity to help customers create outstanding holiday celebrations.

    'Foodie revolution'

    "Our customers' expectations for the holidays are very high, so for us it is an exciting challenge each year to keep the menus lively and interesting, but at the same time not stray too far from tradition," says Beth Ann Locke, director of marketing.

    When asked about the current trends that bode well for Balducci's holiday happenings this year, Locke points to the "whole foodie revolution that's been sweeping the country.

    Multimedia campaign

    "We have always had a commitment to sourcing the best and -- in many cases -- the most exclusive of ingredients for the home chef, from beginner to gourmet," she explains. "So the more interested the general population is in terms of really fabulous food, the better it is for us in terms of marketability. In addition," Locke continues, "since our prepared foods department is so highly regarded, it is easy for us to satisfy the increasing demand for great-tasting meals."

    Balducci's this year is gearing up for big multimedia effort to court holiday gourmands.

    "We have an extensive, integrated campaign that includes ROP, direct mail, Internet, and radio," says Locke. "We've also just rolled out a new line of fabulous gift baskets, and have redesigned our gift card program in advance of the holiday shopping season."

    The aptly named "Forever Yum," priced at $130, is one of many tempting Balducci's gift basket options. The basket, described as "carefully chosen, and ready to be raided at a moment's notice," features a sampler of some of the specialty retailer's classic signature products "and lots of our new faves," says Locke.

    Those "faves," she says, include "Lesser Evil Kettle Corn and Funky Chunky Popcorn; soulful, rustic Columbus Italian Dry Salame; our own balsamic vinaigrette, classic marinara sauce, and Chelsea coffee blend; Roberto Grissini breadsticks; New York Style Bagel Crisps; Terra Chips; and Baci chocolates."

    While the traditional Christian holidays typically rule the roost as the most lucrative selling opportunities, the late-September Jewish high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur -- comprising the holiest period of the Jewish calendar -- headlined Balducci's seasonal fall prepared foods lineup this year.

    In conjunction with the traditional Jewish holiday bill of fare, Balducci's hosted a series of in-store tastings to help customers become better acquainted with items hailing from the grocer's new catering menu, such as Pomegranate Honey Apples consisting of apples with a glaze made from honey and pomegranates, which was available as a side dish or an entree with the Roasted Chicken; a lighter version of the traditional Noodle Kugel, with layers containing cranberries in addition to the usual apple mixture, for an autumnal touch; Potato Kugel featuring sweet roasted garlic and thyme, which was created to complement the Traditional Beef Brisket; and Gefilte Fish with a milder taste and lighter texture than the traditional recipe, partly through the use of tilapia.

    Star attractions

    Locke says the specialty retailer was "very pleased" with the results of the new Jewish holiday prepared food menu, which was created by culinary director David Poran and corporate chef Effie Spiegler. According to Poran, the blend of old and new was a key. "We can never forget our cultural traditions," says Poran, "[but] we can reinterpret them for today's taste buds by making familiar foods with great flavors."

    As for the specific categories that tend to experience the biggest lift during the holidays, Locke says, "For us, it is often the imports -- Panettone, Stollen, and many of the great French, German, and Italian cookies and candies that we carry. In addition, because of our commitment to the best in fresh ingredients, we see lift across the board with our Prime beef in particular, and the meat department in general. Our caviar business also experiences an increase."

    Caviar aside, however, you can be sure turkey, ham, and roast beef -- the traditional favorites at the heart of nearly every holiday feast -- will once again serve as the star attractions of most retailers' seasonal promotional lineups.

    Here's the beef

    While many cuts of everyday beef remain popular during the holiday season, brisk sales of high-margin premium roasts give retailers an extra measure of good cheer during December.

    For retailers seeking to instill visions of succulent beef in their customers' heads, the Centennial, Colo.-based National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) recommends they prepare and sample a fresh beef roast in-store. In addition to the beef itself, a demo gives grocers a chance to dish out roasting tips and recipe cards in front of the case. A meat-carving demonstration, along with the use of a free knife-sharpening station with the purchase of any beef roast, is also a worthy consideration for retailers seeking to further boost beef sales.

    To elevate front-line customer service, NCBA also recommends printing out its "Beef for the Holidays" informational materials to provide associates with additional resources to help fully prepare them for the busy holiday selling season. Available on the "Beef Training Camp" section of its beefretail.org portal, the materials include a list of popular holiday roasts, preparation tips, and a holiday beef-roasting chart. NCBA also advises meat managers to print out the customer holiday FAQ guide, which will further prepare associates for the influx of customer questions during the holidays.

    Ham and pork roasts are also popular during the holidays. According to the National Pork Board's most recent national grocery store promotional data, ham was featured 82 percent more in November and 143 percent more in December than in the average month throughout the year. Grouped together, pork roasts and tenderloins were featured 51 percent more in December than in the average month.

    "By taking the stress and hassle out of the holiday meal planning, retailers can make a big impact with consumers," says Boillot. "Pork's versatility, ease of preparation and value already make it a top choice. By aggressively featuring ham and pork roasts/tenderloins, and creating holiday programs that include these cuts, [retailers can make sure] consumers will be even more compelled to purchase pork for their holiday meals."

    Ham for the holidays

    In common with their efforts to find the right Christmas tree or search for the perfect gift for a loved one, consumers are also exceptionally fussy when it comes to selecting a ham, which ranks rank neck-and-neck with turkey as the most popular center-of-the-plate holiday protein.

    In an effort to make that job a little easier during the holidays -- and all year long, for that matter -- Smithfield Foods recently joined forces with celebrity cook Paula Deen in an exclusive partnership aimed at promoting meals that encourage families to spend more time eating together.

    "This joint effort extends to the upcoming Christmas season, as Smithfield and Paula provide much-needed support to help anxious party planners prepare special holiday meals," says Eric Esch, Smithfield's director of marketing. "Meals are a special part of the holiday celebration, and Smithfield Foods is working with retailers to bring Paula Deen into America's kitchens, to help consumers prepare a delicious, memorable meal for the whole family."

    Deen, the Food Network's queen of Southern cuisine and home cooking, "is the kind of accomplished cook consumers across America want in their kitchen around holiday time, to help them prepare a memorable holiday meal," notes Esch. He expects Smithfield and Deen will drive consumers to retailers with such efforts as a radio campaign and other far-reaching media featuring the chef and Smithfield's signature spiral hams.

    "Consumers trust Paula Deen, and they look to her to help them make meals special," says Esch. "Paula's down-home style and commonsense advice appeal to consumers in every part of the country."

    The Smithfield Foods' holiday 2006 radio campaign includes two 30-second spots, one for Thanksgiving, running Nov. 9 through Nov. 22, and another for Christmas, running Dec. 11 through Dec. 24. Smithfield's radio ads will run frequently during key parts of the day, on various programming formats and stations in 14 core Smithfield markets. The campaign will reach 75 percent of target consumers over 10 times during the holiday season, says Esch, who expects the radio coverage, combined with Paula Deen's distinctive and influential voice, "to break through the hectic pre-holiday chatter and drive consumers to stores to buy Smithfield spiral hams."

    The campaign also includes an online component at Smithfield.com, where consumers can go for help in preparing holiday meals. The site offers such features as recipe videos showing easy-to-make meals using Smithfield products.

    Esch says he's also confident that shoppers will appreciate Deen's ideas and support during the upcoming season. "And with her encouragement and endorsement," he says, "Smithfield hams will likely be popular on grocers' shelves. Whether a consumer is a seasoned cook or planning a first-time holiday meal, Paula Deen can take the worry out of preparations by helping plan the main course and side dishes, and she can even suggest ways to make the leftovers appealing."

    To achieve the partnership's goal, Deen will make personal appearances, participate in activities, including community outreach efforts; offer Web-based recipe and meal preparation tips; contribute to print and broadcast communications such as Webcasts; and participate in new product development. In return, Smithfield will use its Web site and other promotional venues to market Deen's signature products, including her cookbooks, seasonings, barbecue sauces, aprons, T-shirts, gift certificates, and cooking school.

    Smithfield to the rescue

    Smithfield Foods approached Deen with the partnership idea at a show in March, explained James D. Schloss, the Virginia-based company's corporate v.p. of sales and marketing. "Smithfield had already been in Paula's kitchen for years," he says.

    For her part, Deen describes the partnership as "a perfect marriage. There have been times when I could have partnered [with other companies], but opted not to. I wanted to partner with someone with the same morals, the same love of family, and the same pride in their product," she says.

    Her Southern flair in promoting classic country- and long-cured hams is yet another opportunity Smithfield anticipates advancing with Deen on board, notes Pete Booker, general manager of Smithfield Specialty Foods Group. "Consumers around the country who are familiar with -- and crave -- genuine Smithfield Hams will not accept substitutes or take 'no' for an answer," says Booker. "With Paula, we expect that the culinary world and consumers will ask for Genuine Smithfield Hams by name."

    However, Booker adds, not all distributors carry the country-cured hams because of their status as a specialty item. "But it's not a problem if a distributor doesn't carry Genuine Smithfield Hams, because grocers can order the country-cured hams for their customers from Smithfield Specialty Foods -- even if it's just one or two at a time.

    "Smithfield Specialty Foods can come to the rescue of any grocer who receives a special request from a customer during the holidays for one of our premium products," he adds. "We're just a phone call or e-mail away."

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