EARLY ARRIVAL MAKES EASTER TOUGH SELL

Easter's early arrival this year could be bad news for food retailers, a bunch not generally recognized for jumping to seasonal selling opportunities.Easter came in April the past two years, giving retailers overall plenty of selling time between Valentine's Day and Easter. Consumers were exposed longer to Easter merchandise and nice shopping weather.Accordingly, the past two years were a boon for

Easter's early arrival this year could be bad news for food retailers, a bunch not generally recognized for jumping to seasonal selling opportunities.

Easter came in April the past two years, giving retailers overall plenty of selling time between Valentine's Day and Easter. Consumers were exposed longer to Easter merchandise and nice shopping weather.

Accordingly, the past two years were a boon for retailers. Easter candy sales rose 5.5% and 2.2% in 2004 and 2003, respectively, outpacing sales of Valentine's, Christmas and Halloween candy, according to sales in food, drug and mass merchants tracked by Information Resources Inc.

This year, though, consumers are expected to spend more than $1 billion less for the March 27 holiday than the $10.5 billion they spent in 2004, according to a survey conducted by BIGresearch for the National Retail Federation.

"Coming a little earlier, it gives us a chance to create more sales for March, which is typically a little slow," said Brian McGregor, manager and owner of two-store Archie's IGA in St. Maries, Idaho. "But there is a shorter selling window this year, so you have to get your Easter candy out and promote it right away. We put up our Easter displays the day after Valentine's Day.

"Most people are not ready to buy Easter that early, but if you don't have it out, people -- if they are shopping the big-box stores -- may not remember that you sell Easter candy, too, and then they buy it in the box stores."

Candy is a high-impulse category whose consumption is expandable, said consultant Raymond Jones, whose clients include the National Confectioners Association.

"Retailers have the opportunity to influence their sales by getting more product out earlier and actively supporting candy with displays and other merchandising," Jones said.

Speaking one week after Valentine's Day, McGregor said Easter candy sales were already brisk. "We've sold about seven pre-made Easter baskets already, and that's surprising because that's normally a last-minute item. So, I'm optimistic we'll do well this Easter."