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    FRESH FOOD: Super Bowl Promotions: A league of its own

    The Super Bowl party today might comprise the biggest play of all for grocers.

    Grocers can officially and permanently add the Super Bowl to their playbooks for preparing to score big on opportunities for party catering. Hardly just "a game," the Super Bowl has evolved into an authentic cultural phenomenon that, heading into its 41st year, has spawned an online grass-roots movement to legitimize it as an official national holiday, with observation to take place the following Monday.

    Regardless of the outcome of that quirky campaign, the Super Bowl -- which now ranks as the second-largest food consumption day in America, behind Thanksgiving -- is a super-sized supermarket selling event, surpassing even New Year's Eve in terms of annual at-home celebrations.

    With statistics pegging the average Super Bowl party head count at 18, there's a certain amount of inherent pressure on party hosts to plan a menu that's both easy and appetizing. And, by all accounts, the ideal game plan revolves around helping consumers keep it simple, a job that falls squarely on the shoulders of grocers.

    "Super Bowl has become a premiere American holiday event, representing a total store promotional opportunity with all of the party frills of other key holidays, complete with good food, beverages, and themed 'event' opportunities for sales across all departments," says Jan DeLyser, v.p. of marketing for the Irvine, Calif.-based California Avocado Commission (CAC).

    In the same vein as America's other national holidays, food factors heavily into the mix. However, beyond more traditional holidays, notes DeLeyser, the Super Bowl is "an all-day eating event" that resides in a league of its own.

    Jim Schloss, v.p. of sales and marketing for Smithfield, Va.-based Smithfield Foods, concurs. "Super Bowl Sunday is the top at-home party event of the year," he says, one that has migrated from a card table's worth of forgettable snacks "into a high-end cocktail party, or a casual grazing event" featuring a wide assortment of foods and flavors. And much like the actual game itself, he adds, "The party -- which often more closely resembles a reception -- usually plays out in a series of stages: cocktails and finger foods during the first half, a main meal at half time, and dessert served toward the end of or after the game."

    In recent years Super Bowl festivities "have broadened to include a more upscale audience, which in turn provides hosts the perfect opportunity to make food statements to impress invited guests," says CAC's DeLyser. "Because of the expanded audiences, football fans have developed a more sophisticated palate," which in turn raises consumers' expectations of their local grocery stores.

    "Consumers not only look to their retailer for theme ideas for special events and activities such as Super Bowl parties," says DeLyser, "they also rely on grocery stores to have fresh ingredients, from traditional favorites to more 'souped-up' food ideas, for a great gathering." This sets the stage for sales of higher-end wines, cheeses, and other items, all of which just so happen to be great culinary partners with avocados, she adds -- not to mention that game day runs neck-and-neck with Cinco de Mayo as the leading avocado consumption day of the year.

    "Retailers can -- and should -- take full advantage of this by suggesting new and interesting recipes and eating ideas for consumers," adds DeLyser.

    Interestingly, while many party hosts might, in truth, be thoroughly unconcerned about the final outcome of the game, "they still want to be a part of the festivities, rather than feeling handcuffed to the kitchen during the game," says Schloss. "With that in mind, I believe that the kinds of products that will become even more popular for Super Bowl parties this season are the more upscale products like spiral hams, turkey breasts, and tenderloins, as well as fully cooked and/or oven-ready entrees."

    Daniel Incaudo, v.p. of sales for Smithfield's Global Products division, says that while the big game day obviously means more customers buying party foods and special items, the event also provides grocers a seamless hand-off "to cross-merchandise and sell items outside the norm of the everyday shopping trip."

    Cheese, as a key ingredient in dips, spreads, casseroles, or other party favorites, provides retailers with a string of sharp opportunities for cross-merchandising with a variety of other ingredients, including pasta, produce, and condiments, according to Bill Drew, v.p. of marketing services for the Madison-based Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB).

    "Football promotions in general continue to attract a male and female audience, whether it's college or professional," says Drew; indeed, playoff games leading directly into the Super Bowl continue to represent one of the highest cheese usage periods throughout the entire year, he notes.

    Yet, while it's a given that any good grocer readily embraces, and plans far ahead for, key holiday events like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter, a great many of them continue to mistakenly approach the Super Bowl with aloofness.

    "After New Year's, in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, some retailers kind of just give up because Thanksgiving and Christmas are just so much work," says Smithfield's Schloss. "In addition to properly planning ahead, they still have to remain energized" to maximize their potential Super Bowl sales.

    Since the Super Bowl's proximity to the holidays certainly makes it a challenge for retailers, CAC's DeLyser says that it's incumbent on suppliers to deliver "accurate supply information and lead time for promotional commitments well ahead of the big game day."

    Retail success is enhanced when adequate ripe avocados are available for the duration of the occasion, says DeLyser, which consequently requires retailers to plan ahead and work closely with their suppliers "to ensure well-stocked displays of avocados that are ripe and ready for use that day. Sales opportunities are exceptional for avocados on Super Bowl," she adds, reiterating the importance of adequate supplies and aggressive promotions.

    To that end, both the CAC and the Hass Avocado Board (HAB), also based in Irvine, Calif., have integrated programs designed to link avocados closely with Super Bowl activities, says DeLyser, noting that CAC's consumer communications programs, "both advertising, via radio with usage ideas and retail tags, and public relations, via long-lead consumer magazines and short-lead publications focused on usage and nutrition information, create consumer interest in avocados during the Super Bowl time frame."

    For its part, the HAB program has featured a celebrity spokesperson, generally associated with the NFL, who is available for media opportunities associated with the event, to generate interest in avocados for the Super Bowl. Says DeLyser, "These programs are communicated to retailers, as are in-store events such as sampling, themed display contests, and POS materials, to provide maximum sales opportunities for avocados for Super Bowl-themed events."

    While WMMB has long scored points with its members as well as retailers by organizing football-themed promotions via counter signs and recipes during football season, Drew says the organization this year will focus on the January/February 2007 period, "when the NFL playoffs and Super Bowl present the ideal time to promote cheese." WWMB's partner this year is New York Style Bagel Crisps and Pita Chips. Drew notes the products' key compatibility with cheese snacking, and adds that the board has created two "great but simple" recipes that use Wisconsin Cheese and the New York Style products.

    The partners will offer consumers in-store coupons good for $2 off the purchase of any eight-ounce brand of Wisconsin Cheese that contains the "Pride" logo and any two New York Style products. An FSI in 43 markets representing over 46 million in circulation will announce the promotion on Jan. 14, 2007, featuring another New York Style coupon, up to five coupons for various cheeses from Wisconsin, and the "$100,000 Playoff Payoff Online Trivia Game."

    According to Drew, the trivia game "will provide a fun way for consumers to get in the football spirit, possibly win instant prizes, answer trivia questions, and find more recipes for cheeses from Wisconsin and New York Style products. In fact," he adds, "our game pits the Wisconsin Shredders against the New York Style Dippers."

    To keep the wheels spinning year-round, Drew advises retailers "to make sure your staff is knowledgeable about the products they're selling, especially in the deli department, so that they can explain to consumers how to use them." This is particularly true with regard to the growing trend toward specialty cheeses, he says, adding that the staff "can play a key role in helping consumers decide what foods, wines, and snack items go well with the cheese, as well as how to handle the products so that they can be consumed at the peak of flavor. Sampling is always key, but knowledge is power on the part of deli personnel.

    "It's simply remarkable to find that some have not tried many of the specialty products that bring in a high ring and high margin," says Drew, pointing to WMMB's training programs, which include the popular "Cheesecyclopedia" course.

    For his part, Smithfield's Incaudo, who oversees the Krakus ham brand, urges grocers to "aggressively cross-merchandise products and present simple solutions" on a regular basis throughout the year. "Advertising party platters and premium brands as high-quality solutions for gatherings of all sizes will make their stores a destination for special events," notes Incaudo. "Quality, trusted brands, and convenience collectively equal incremental sales for the store."

    Convenience and ease of preparation, says Smithfield's Schloss, "will transcend everything," regardless of the reason or the season. "The Super Bowl is obviously a big event already, and most retailers do a good job with beverages, deli party platters, and snacks. But I think most could do an even bigger job than they already do," he says, by deploying a solid game plan throughout the entire store in a more unified fashion, inclusive of the fresh meat, produce, and packaged deli categories.

    Schloss further suggests that retailers could score extra points by employing customized signage that speaks to Super Bowl-focused convenience items in every department. He also advocates having an assigned "Super Bowl guru" available at the service desk to help customers with party-planning tips and menu suggestions.

    DeLyser further recommends that retailers "carry ripe avocados, and maintain a two-size display -- arge and small in bulk, or large bulk and small in bags -- in prominent locations merchandised with compatible items such as lemons, tomatoes, onions, and garlic." These merchandising techniques, she points out, allow retailers to use events and holidays to drive trial of products, leading to ongoing purchase and consumption.

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