EARLY EASTER SALES LAY AN EGG

For food retailers, sales this spring have been about as soft as the Easter Bunny.Easter fell on the last Sunday in March, about three weeks before it usually does. The holiday's early arrival meant there was less time to merchandise specialty offerings this year, and retailers told SN the effect showed up in their tills."When we put this year up against last year's Easter, our comp-store sales weren't

For food retailers, sales this spring have been about as soft as the Easter Bunny.

Easter fell on the last Sunday in March, about three weeks before it usually does. The holiday's early arrival meant there was less time to merchandise specialty offerings this year, and retailers told SN the effect showed up in their tills.

"When we put this year up against last year's Easter, our comp-store sales weren't as high," said Ron Pearson, chairman, Hy-Vee, West Des Moines, Iowa. He noted that his chain has been averaging comp-store gains of about 5.5% for the past six months. "We think the later Easter is a much better advantage for us than the early Easter," he said.

Pearson stated that comps for the period leading up to Easter rose about 3.5% to 4%, off slightly from the trend.

"Our feeling is we don't have as long a time following the [winter] holidays to merchandise and sell all the products that you normally sell when you've got a later Easter," he said. He said the proximity of Easter to local school closures for spring break, which resulted in a lot of Easter vacations this year, might have contributed to the sales slump.

Bob Spengler, president and chief operating officer, Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif., said sales at his company also came in below expectations for this year's Easter holiday season.

"Because the holiday came early, our sales were flat," he said. "We've been enjoying positive sales, but we barely met last year's Easter sales."

Spengler attributed the flatness in part to a high volume of rain in the region, which canceled some family gatherings.

(Some independent retailers said customers responded well to perishables promotions. See Page 40.)

Analysts said the impact on the industry overall should be minimal.

"With Easter coming earlier, it gives a favorable comparison for the first period, but probably a negative comparison for the second period," said Jason Whitmer, analyst, FTN Midwest Research, Cleveland. "If you add things up, it's probably affected to some degree by the fact that there are fewer selling days."