BELLE OF THE BALL

Once tucked away on wire racks in a corner of the store, partyware has blossomed into a $1.7 billion industry with year-round opportunities for supermarkets.Partyware designs, colors and licensed properties continue to evolve, creating waves of excitement in the category and motivating supermarkets to start thinking outside the box. Party supplies now are often cross merchandised with other important

Once tucked away on wire racks in a corner of the store, partyware has blossomed into a $1.7 billion industry with year-round opportunities for supermarkets.

Partyware designs, colors and licensed properties continue to evolve, creating waves of excitement in the category and motivating supermarkets to start thinking outside the box. Party supplies now are often cross merchandised with other important related departments like bakery, deli and wine, as well as in the baking-needs and paper-goods aisles.

And whether for a child's birthday or for all-purpose entertaining at home, consumers are insisting on higher-quality party supplies, according to retailers and suppliers alike.

Partyware has been a particularly hot commodity for Carr Gottstein Foods, Anchorage, Alaska, whose sales in the category are up 18% over last year's. Party items represent 15% to 20% of total social-expression sales at Carr, said Gary Schloss, vice president of general merchandise.

Party favors do especially well, Schloss said, "and the 50% margins are good business for us."

More upscale, high-impact plastic products, like cups and plates in themed colors and coordinated designs, spark interest in the category, he added.

"People are looking for more upscale partyware for kids' birthday parties and other parties," he said. "For adult parties, the host is thinking, 'When guests are invited over they'll think the better-quality plastic plates and cups are good-looking and as good as my china, they're disposable and I don't have to wash dishes at 2 a.m.' "

In addition to carrying party items in the greeting-card area, the chain has started to cross merchandise party goods in 4- to 8-foot sections in paper goods, which boosts sales, Schloss said.

At Harding's Friendly Markets, Plainwell, Mich., party-supply volume soared 10% to 15% after the chain put extra shipper displays at the bakery, at the deli and in the paper-goods aisle, said Dave Lynam, nonfood buyer.

"When someone thinks of picking up some partyware, they also think of paper goods while at the bakery ordering a cake," he said. Harding's also devotes between 4 and 12 feet to partyware in the greeting-card section.

This cross-merchandising effort was inspired by the home-meal-replacement trend and the increase in women who work, Lynam said. "We wanted to do anything we could to make things easier and convenient."

As with other general-merchandise categories, however, supermarkets are feeling the competitive heat in partyware from large, and growing, category-killer retailers.

Although partyware has been "a good, steady category, we're facing party discount warehouse stores that sell the same Ambassador partyware patterns we carry at 40% off," said Bill Roatch, nonfood buyer/merchandiser for Raley's Supermarkets, West Sacramento, Calif.

To offset the competition from party warehouse outlets, Raley's has adopted a strategy of emphasizing more adult partyware patterns and upscale items, Roatch said.

The chain began its upscale approach to the category in May at a couple of stores to create a product mix "somewhat different from the large party warehouses', which heavily focus on children's party goods," he said. (Roatch noted that greeting cards still account for most of the chain's social-expression sales.)

For example, the Raley's stores applying the new merchandising concept carry candles priced up to $25, "which helps set our party products apart and shows we have some different products." Raley's also cross merchandises licensed partyware with cakes in the bakery department.

During its internal merchandising show this month, Raley's will also debut new 16- to 20-foot home-fragrance departments. The in-line sections will contain assorted candles, matching aromatherapy products, potpourri and other related accessories, Roatch said.