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Just as surely as Christmas arrives on Dec. 25, thousands of customers will be rushing to supermarkets on Dec. 24 to complete their holiday preparations.
So what items are most in demand by these last-minute shoppers?
Store directors for Iowa-based Hy-Vee supermarkets throughout the Midwest say Christmas Eve purchases tend to fall into three distinct categories:
Specialty items: Easily overlooked on a regular shopping trip, these are key ingredients critical to the holiday celebration – “cocktail sauce for the shrimp, glaze for the ham, heavy whipping cream for the dessert, batteries for the new electronics,” said Bob Trader, director of the Hy-Vee at Empire Mall in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Jen Book, director of the Hy-Vee store in Altoona, Iowa, said the weather dictates some last-minute buys. “If it’s icy, we’ll have a run on the snow melt products,” she said.
Hy-Vee store directors also see shoppers on a mission for specialty items such as cinnamon sticks for hot cider, mincemeat, oyster crackers, olives, spices, Cool Whip, Caro syrup, and cookies and carrots to leave out for Santa and his reindeer.
Stock-up items: These are things people just don't want to run out of at Christmastime, said Jim Lehman, director of the Hy-Vee store on John Deere Road in Moline, Ill. “Customers realize the grocery stores are going to be closed on Christmas Day, so they want to make sure they have enough milk, eggs, bread, pop, ice, beer and chips on hand to get them through the holiday,” he said.
Trader said his store closes at 6 p.m. Christmas Eve and, invariably, there will be customers rushing through the doors at 5:59. “That seems to be their motivation – go to the store on Christmas Eve, or else you do without for a couple days,” he said.
Gifts and entertaining: Mark Cortis, director of the Englewood Hy-Vee in Kansas City, Mo., said many of his Christmas Eve customers are still hunting for the perfect present. “They’re buying gift cards, gift baskets and stocking-stuffer items like candy, small toys or even lottery tickets,” he said.
“The later the hour, the more impulse buying you see,” said Denny Hartogh, director of the Hy-Vee on Locust Street in Dubuque, Iowa. “We’ll sell a lot of seafood trays, candy trays, floral arrangements and higher-end wines and beers. Customers aren’t as worried about how much they’re spending at that point – it’s about finding something special and creative to give as a gift or take to a party.”
Jim Ewoldt, director of the Hy-Vee at 156th and Maple in Dubuque, agrees. “At the last minute, you might feel like you didn’t spend enough on someone, so you pick up a gift card for them,” he said. “Or you decide you need a centerpiece for the holiday table, or a tray of cookies, or a vegetable platter, or a greeting card.”
He added that prepared foods of all kinds tend to be popular on Christmas Eve. “Our Chinese Express and Italian Express departments are busy that afternoon with takeout business,” he said. “With the big meal coming on Christmas Day, nobody wants to cook that night.”
With 2010 sales of $6.9 billion, Hy-Vee Inc. operates 231 retail stores in eight Midwestern states.