AN EARLY FRIGHT

Fall is falling earlier. Indeed, the water's scarcely drained from theneighborhood pool when retailers start stacking their shelves with Halloween candy. Are retailers rushing holiday seasons? Perhaps. Are they profiting from this rush? Definitely. Grocery executives contacted by SN said the sooner seasonal displays of the highly impulsive candy category are built, the more products are sold.And despite

Fall is falling earlier. Indeed, the water's scarcely drained from the

neighborhood pool when retailers start stacking their shelves with Halloween candy. Are retailers rushing holiday seasons? Perhaps. Are they profiting from this rush? Definitely. Grocery executives contacted by SN said the sooner seasonal displays of the highly impulsive candy category are built, the more products are sold.

And despite a decline in trick-or-treating activity, Halloween candy is still marketed to children. Furthermore, the season remains a confectionery sales utopia for retailers.

"What we're doing is getting the candy in earlier than we have in the past," explained Nick Wedberg, vice president of sales at Plumb's, Muskegon, Mich.

"Before, we used to get it in the first week of October. Lately, we've gotten it in the second and third week of September. But, this year, we're even moving that up to the first two weeks of September," he said.

"So, we'll have it out there a month and a half, which is good, because we're selling more candy earlier, and thus making more profits. That's what we like to see."

That's also what manufacturers like to see. Truth is, it's the vendors who are pushing this rushing of the season, retailers said.

Indeed, now's the time -- just as they're shedding their winter overcoats -- when retailers' thoughts turn to autumn and Halloween.

"Most of the time the orders are due by the second week of May," explained Steve Reynolds, director of purchasing at Lem Markets, South Boston, Va.

"The buying shows are coming up in May. And [manufacturers], with all their ad and promotional offers, will be in here shortly," said R. Grant MacLean, candy merchandiser at Rosauers Supermarkets, Spokane, Wash.

Harvey Godwin, director of grocery and marketing at Food Folks, Lumberton, S.C., said, "Retailers have to place their orders early because products are manufactured on demand. If you don't do it that early, you won't get it."

Godwin said he'll place his orders in May and display the merchandise in mid-September. "And that's quite a bit earlier than a few years ago -- weeks earlier," he noted.

Ken Lanhardt, director of produce and floral operations at the Lithia Springs-based Georgia division of Cub Foods Stores, handles all the bulk candy. Displayed in the produce/bulk foods department, Lanhardt said bulk candy sales double during Halloween. Therefore, advertising early is a benefit.

"It's bulk, wrapped candy and we'll advertise it several weeks prior to Halloween. Sales are going to increase."

Wholesalers, such as Bell's Wholesale Grocery, Morgantown, W.Va., have to order earlier than retailers. According to Andy Krutko, vice president, April is the time to order Halloween candy, as dictated by manufacturers. That's because if you need more seasonal candy later on down the road, it won't be available, he said.

The supermarkets that get into the holiday spirit long before the calendar are just following an overall retail trend, said Food Folks' Godwin.

Halloween is advertised anytime after Labor Day, he said. "People get into the fall spirit, and they're looking for items like candy corn, which is more of a fall item than Halloween. So they want the harvest-season-type candy."

Likewise, the Christmas season, which used to begin the day after Thanksgiving, has been bumped forward, too. "I've seen Christmas advertised as early as the first of November," said Godwin.

Easter is the other holiday retailers identified as an extended candy promotion vehicle. And while eggs and jelly beans sit pretty on the display racks, retailers are already thinking about Indian corn and mellowcremes.

"I'm beginning to look at Halloween now," said Brian Ryckeley, a grocery buyer at H.G. Hill Stores, Nashville, Tenn. "It's coming on. By May we'll be looking at it hard; we've got to get the booking orders in."

Although fewer children are taking to the streets to trick or treat, Halloween candy sales remain strong and the retail merchandising effort remains focused on kids.

"It's still a kid's holiday, in my opinion; we still cater to them," said Plumb's Wedberg. "And we do that with candy.

"Some of the national companies, like M&M/Mars and Hershey, may be changing their packages to perhaps appeal to an older clientele, but it's still the kids that influence their moms and dads."

In stores with large areas for special displays, Wedberg creates excitement for the younger set. "We might have a big haunted house with spooky sounds inside and animated characters. And we do all that stuff for the kids," explained Wedberg.

Lem Markets' Reynolds also keys in on children when building Halloween candy displays. "I'm not sure adults keep up with what children think is hot candy, so we put a good mix out there to attract the kids."

While vendors supply special shippers to display their seasonal merchandise, retailers such as Reynolds said they generally like to either build around those shippers or create their own displays. In fact, Reynolds runs a display contest for his store managers.

"My feeling is [Halloween merchandising] hasn't changed; it's just more people are getting into the actual selling of candy during that season, because it's so big," said Rosauers' MacLean.

"Typically, most of the candy is purchased by adults, but for the sake of giving it to children, even if they do eat a lot of it before they give it out," he said.

That doesn't mean there aren't other categories trying to deliver noncandy Halloween goods to adults.

For instance, Anheuser-Busch gives big play and point-of-purchase materials to its beer products. Soft drink and snack manufacturers also have adopted more aggressive, adult-oriented Halloween marketing programs.

"There are definitely more manufacturers trying to get into it," said Rosauers' MacLean.

Lem Markets' Reynolds agreed. "I am starting to see more people getting into Halloween packaging and merchandising. It's not a whole lot right now, but there are those trying to get in on the action."

"Beer and cola companies have the Halloween point-of-purchase materials aimed at adults, but I haven't seen any for candy," said H.G. Hill's Ryckeley, who noted his company pulls out and displays all Halloween candy bulk in lieu of manufacturer shippers.

In the past, Ryckeley hasn't merchandised Halloween candy next to the beverage displays, but added it's a possibility for this year, depending on the space available in each store.

Nevertheless, whether next to beer and soda for adults or in a special display for children, Ryckeley said the candy will sell. "We haven't seen any decline in sales; so it's going somewhere, but I can't determine if more adults are picking it up for themselves or for children."

Food Folks' Godwin said that during the past five years, beer and soda companies have gotten into Halloween programs for adults to capitalize on a growing trend: the holiday as an adult time to party.

"But," he added, "even though you don't have a lot of trick-or-treaters anymore, you still have kids' Halloween parties in schools and churches."

As an example, Godwin said his own 10-year-old celebrates the spooky holiday during a school carnival. "They buy candy and, during a little party, they give it away to their friends. So even with fewer trick-or-treaters, I haven't seen any decrease in the sales of candy."