BIRDS THAT TURN

Rotisserie chicken sales continue to climb as retailers use aggressive marketing tactics to put new spin on their programs.Supermarket deli executives across the country told SN they've seen significant sales growth in the last few months. One retailer reported rotisserie chicken sales are up 25% from a year ago, while another has posted a 10% gain in the last year.To keep their programs hot, deli

Rotisserie chicken sales continue to climb as retailers use aggressive marketing tactics to put new spin on their programs.

Supermarket deli executives across the country told SN they've seen significant sales growth in the last few months. One retailer reported rotisserie chicken sales are up 25% from a year ago, while another has posted a 10% gain in the last year.

To keep their programs hot, deli executives are:

Building meal packages around the chickens.

Doing price comparisons with Kentucky Fried Chicken and Boston Chicken.

Giving rotisserie programs a high profile with more frequent radio and newspaper ads, two-for specials and bigger signs in stores.

Adding new premarinated varieties and new packaging.

Why all the attention to a product that's been around in some markets for years?

Fast-food chains have heated up interest in rotisserie chicken with their advertising, and supermarkets are trying to take advantage of that.

"We've had rotisserie chickens since day one, but the franchise restaurants recently have been calling consumers' attention to the existence of the product," said Paul Margarites, vice president of national deli-bakery operations at A&P, Montvale, N.J. "Their ads have helped our volume."

Margarites declined to say how much sales of A&P's rotisserie chickens have risen from this time last year, but he did say the program is doing well enough for the chain to boost its support.

"We're promoting them more this year and we're doing it in two ways: featuring the individual product and a meal package. It's important to promote it both ways," Margarites said.

A&P also has added marinated varieties -- lemon-pepper, honey, herb and mesquite -- in the last year, he said.

A Southwest retailer said the introduction of marinated varieties by manufacturers has been a major factor in building the rotisserie chicken business. The retailer added marinated varieties to the program last month, and his chain was already doing well with plain and barbecued rotisserie chickens, he said.

"They're the strength of our hot foods program," the Southwest merchandiser said. He credits KFC's advertising with helping to push sales of rotisserie chickens up 25% over last year.

The retailers SN interviewed were unanimous in their opinion that there is excellent sales potential still ahead for the category.

That's true because rotisserie chicken suits today's busy consumer so well, they said. They pointed out that the product is convenient and easy to carry, and that people regard it as a healthy item, and a good value for the price.

While chains like A&P are revitalizing their new focus on rotisserie chicken, other chains are just now rolling them out to all their stores.

A deli executive at a Midwestern chain said customer demand spurred such a rollout just prior to last Christmas. Before that, the company had had the product in a little more than half its stores.

"People come in looking for them, and if you don't have them, they're disappointed. It's not a product that you can offer an alternative to. If someone has his heart set on rotisserie chicken, he's not going be happy with a sandwich or a slice of pizza. You've lost him, if you can't give him a chicken," the Midwestern executive said. Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., recently made rotisserie chicken the centerpiece in its hot food program.

"We've pared down our hot foods to items that really sell, and rotisserie chicken is the focus. Now we just offer rotisserie and fried chicken and spare ribs," said Roland Asselin, deli sales manager at the 31-unit chain.

Asselin added that the sales potential for rotisserie chicken is virtually unlimited, given the use of "concentrated merchandising and advertising." A deli director from a West Coast chain told SN he's looking to step up his merchandising of rotisserie chickens dramatically this year. "We have a good product, but we just haven't been aggressive enough about selling it," said the retailer.

The first new move, taken last month, was to place a 4-by-8-foot banner over the hot tables that reads, "Hot Rotisserie Chickens." Promoting the chickens as part of a meal package is also part of the plan for the summer, he said.

E.W. James & Sons, Union City, Tenn., has never offered rotisserie chicken, but is seriously considering doing so now, said Darrell Bruff, deli-bakery supervisor at the 16-unit company.

"We've always done a good job with fried chicken, but obviously there's a big market for rotisserie, too. We're considering it because it gives the customer an alternative. It's seen as a low-fat product. Not many grocers around here have rotisserie chicken, but KFC sure sells a lot of it," he said.

Big Y's most recent push is promoting the chickens as part of a dinner package, "just like Boston Chicken does," said Asselin.

Consumers Markets, Springfield, Mo., quadrupled sales of its rotisserie chickens by showing a price comparison with KFC's rotisserie chicken.

"We've never been this aggressive with rotisserie chickens before, but they're a very good draw," said Judy Williams, the 23-unit chain's bakery-deli director.

When Consumers advertised rotisserie chickens at two for $6 a little more than a month ago, the chain more than doubled weekly sales. More recently, sales quadrupled when it ran the same ad and invited customers to compare prices with KFC's prices.

"KFC is selling their Rotisserie Gold for $6.99 each here, and we referred to ours as twice the value in our ad," Williams said. Customer response to that ad was so unexpectedly strong that stores found it difficult to keep up with demand.

"We had to buy additional spits so our employees could have one loaded up with chickens to put in the rotisserie as soon as they took the cooked ones out. And still, believe it or not, at some stores people were waiting 15 or 20 minutes for a chicken to come out of the rotisserie. In one store that's located near a retirement community, the deli manager was taking customers' home phone numbers and calling them when the next batch was ready," Williams said.

Consumers' next move in the rotisserie arena is to pair up a locally popular branded barbecue sauce with rotisserie chickens. Williams is also about to launch a competition among employees to think of a catchy name for the program.

Barbecued rotisserie chicken sales took off this year at Minyard Food Stores, Coppell, Texas, posting a gain of 10% over a year earlier.

Based on that growth, the company is now testing marinated varieties in selected stores, said Jack Murdock, director of deli operations at the 81-unit chain.

"Previously we had had just barbecue, but we found customers want variety. We're trying lemon-pepper and rosemary in two stores and sales look good. I think if everything works out with the supplier, we'll roll them out to all our delis," Murdock said.

Asked what he attributed the sales jump in barbecued chickens to, Murdock said, "Packaging had something to do with it. We went from overwrap on a tray to dome packages. The presentation's better and there's no leakage," Murdock said.

Next on his rotisserie agenda is a meal package built around the chickens, he said.

Another Texas retailer, 30-unit Fiesta Mart in Houston, is steering away from meal packages. "That's because all our stores are in different ethnic neighborhoods. The side dishes customers want vary too much to make it practical," said John Eagleson, Fiesta Mart's hot deli supervisor.

The retailer from the chain in the Midwest said meal packages are not part of his plan either.

"I like the flexibility [of offering chickens alone] and I think our customers do, too. They might not want mashed potatoes," the executive said.

"We do constantly remind our staff, though, to suggest a side dish to go with the chicken. We often suggest they push a particular item, such as pasta salad or red potato salad. When we do that and tell our employees the gross profit on the item, it often gets them enthusiastic about selling it," he said. He estimated that one out of three rotisserie chicken customers orders something to accompany it. Indeed, retailers said, so many things go well with rotisserie chicken, and that helps make it a good seller.

"Like a basic black dress, you can dress it up or down. You can serve it with couscous or coleslaw," said Daisy King, home economist at five-unit Steven's Food Stores, Nashville, Tenn.

"We started pairing different side dishes with the chickens last fall on chalkboards," King said. Asked if that was what boosted sales of the items at Steven's in the last year, she said it was difficult to tell.

"I do know that whenever KFC has an ad on TV, volume goes up tremendously, and they've done a lot of advertising recently," she added.

Steven's is considering adding varieties and also rotisserie turkeys this year, she added.

"The rotisserie products call attention to the other fresh foods because people see them right away; and there's the aroma," King said.

Williams at Consumers Markets agreed. "Rotisserie chickens do a lot for you that a stick of bologna can't. They look great and the aroma is terrific," she said.