ABUNDANT CRANBERRIES TOP HOLIDAY WISH LIST

Produce merchandisers are likely to be wishing for a holiday present this year -- fresh cranberry supplies that last well past Thanksgiving to cover the Christmas rush as well.In the first week of November, retailers contacted by SN were sounding cautiously optimistic that, this year, such a wish might just come true.Jim Corby, director of produce merchandising for Abco Foods in Phoenix, told SN he

Produce merchandisers are likely to be wishing for a holiday present this year -- fresh cranberry supplies that last well past Thanksgiving to cover the Christmas rush as well.

In the first week of November, retailers contacted by SN were sounding cautiously optimistic that, this year, such a wish might just come true.

Jim Corby, director of produce merchandising for Abco Foods in Phoenix, told SN he thinks his supplies of the holiday fruit will be sufficient.

"At this point, the supplies for fresh cranberries seem to be good, better than they've been the last several years," Corby said. "I'm kind of holding my breath right now, to make sure it's going to stay that way. I'm hoping to have them through Christmas."

Still, Corby said he is leery about putting cranberries on ad. Thus, it's a challenge to make shoppers aware that cranberries are in stock.

"The key to selling fresh cranberries is to make sure people know you have them," he said. "So [you] keep them as visible as you can." Corby will try, when possible, to create large sections of the fresh cranberries on his wet racks. He will also strive to position the fresh cranberries near other Thanksgiving-related items, such as celery.

Roche Bros. Supermarkets, Wellesley Hills, Mass., has already put fresh cranberries on ad this season, said Tom Murray, produce director.

During the week of Oct. 15 to 21, packages of cranberries retailed at the chain at two for $3.

Murray said he is waiting to see if he can put them on ad again. However, he also said he has heard rumors lately of short cranberry supplies.

"I haven't had any problems,

but I hear they are short," he said. "This happens every year. But for now, I'm all set."

Murray said he generally advises shoppers to buy two bags in anticipation of shortfalls later in the season.

"Usually by Christmas, cranberries are gone, or very short. I try to get that across to the customers, to buy an extra one and put it in the freezer."

When merchandising fresh cranberries, Murray said, he takes advantage of the local marketing angle, since nearby Cape Cod is home to cranberry bogs.

"I always tie in cranberries with my fresh cider displays. It works out nice," he said.

The question of fresh holiday supplies of the little berries presents somewhat of a perennial irony for retail produce executives.

The holidays, particularly Thanksgiving, are supposed to represent a time of abundance and bountiful harvests. Fresh cranberries, meanwhile, often seem to turn up in short supply when they are most in demand, especially over the last several seasons.

On the supply side, the news coming from major cranberry-growing states sounds mixed this season. Cranberry growers in Wisconsin reported record-breaking harvests, while crops in Massachusetts were down, due to an unusually dry summer.

Ocean Spray Cranberries, the category's leading supplier, based in Lakeville, Mass., anticipates meeting Thanksgiving demand, according to Chris Phillips, a company spokesman.

"That's the peak time for fresh cranberries," said Phillips. However, the company is making no guarantees for Christmas supplies, he added.

Phillips said the cranberry crop in Massachusetts is down about 10%, due primarily to the summer weather.

Northland Cranberries, based in Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., on the other hand, reported an overall increase of 14% in cranberry supplies. The record- setting harvest from Northland's Wisconsin bogs is expected to offset losses from Massachusetts, said the company in a statement.

Some retailers, meanwhile, said they detect that the weaker cranberry crop out of Massachusetts is putting pressure already on the rest of the market.

"Supplies are a little tighter," said Frank Gillespie, corporate produce director for Roundy's, a wholesaler based in Pewaukee, Wis.

"Suppliers in Massachusetts came up a little shorter, which put a little pressure on the market. But we booked out for the season at a good price, so we're in good shape," he said.

Roundy's Wisconsin-based location is helpful in obtaining fresh cranberry supplies, he added.

"We happen to have a supplier in our backyard," he said. "So, I'm in a very good position. The guy over in Ohio may not be so fortunate."

Roundy's does plan to put cranberries on ad this year, Gillespie said. "I don't feel we're going to be restricted." Gillespie said he normally retails packages of cranberries between $1 and $2. "But we'll advertise at less than that, when we do advertise," he said. "And we'll have ample supplies when we do that." He said sales of packaged cranberries slow down when they break the $1 level.

"But it's not like yesteryear, when we put them out at 69 cents. That was when we really moved some cranberries," he said.

Demand for the fresh cranberries has decreased in recent seasons, according to Gillespie, because many consumers today don't have time to make fresh cranberry jellies and sauces, or they don't know how. "So they'll grab the canned and prepared jellies and sauces," he said. Tom Osborne, produce buyer for Thrifty Foods, Burlington, Wash., said cranberry prices started creeping up ominously during the last week of October.

"Pricing took a 10% advance last week, and it's looking to be another 10% to 15% next week," he told SN in the first week of November. "That's when we'll book the product for Thanksgiving; of course, that will impact retail."

Despite that, Osborne added he felt confident supplies would be sufficient. He said one of his store groups plans to lead off its Thanksgiving ad with a cranberry promotion.

The ad, set to break Nov. 15, will feature fresh cranberries at a "very competitive price," he said.

"We're going to try and cross-merchandise cranberries in the meat department with the upper-end, fresh turkeys, as opposed to the commodity birds we lose money on," he said.

"In the produce department, the cranberries will also be the central items around our other holiday items, like yams and celery."

One Florida-based independent retailer said supplies have been a little erratic, but no worse than in years past.

"So far, there haven't been any real problems," said the retailer. "It's been a little hit and miss."

The retailer said his company has an excellent relationship with its distributor, which helps ensure good supplies. "We buy from only one distributor, and he makes sure we have the cranberries," he said.

Supplies looked adequate in early November for Randy Bohaty, produce director for B&R Stores, Lincoln, Neb.

He said he has already featured cranberries on ad, and intends to do so again. However, he is also anticipating another season of fresh cranberry roulette, and banking on stable supplies will be a gamble.

He said B&R tries to stock up on fresh cranberry packages while supplies are good.

"The problem with cranberries is, you never know. Supplies are good, and suddenly you can't get them anymore," he said. "Through Thanksgiving it looks good, but usually between Thanksgiving and Christmas we start running into a pinch."