The Easter Bunny came hopping into town, and left upbeat sales behind for supermarket delis.The bunny also brought days of unseasonably warm weather with him into many markets, a factor supermarket operators credited with spurring sales of prepared picnic items, such as ribs and coleslaw.Traditional holiday foods like baked hams sold well and prepared meals grew in importance as harried consumers

The Easter Bunny came hopping into town, and left upbeat sales behind for supermarket delis.

The bunny also brought days of unseasonably warm weather with him into many markets, a factor supermarket operators credited with spurring sales of prepared picnic items, such as ribs and coleslaw.

Traditional holiday foods like baked hams sold well and prepared meals grew in importance as harried consumers sought ways to get out of the kitchen as quickly as possible, merchandisers said.

"Easter was good and the weather was great," said Nelson Rodenmayer, marketing director for Winn-Dixie Stores' Louisville, Ky., division. "We always focus on our deli dinners -- Easter ham dinners. We've been focusing on it heavier in the last five-plus years."

The chain's division pushed the ham dinner by promoting it in-store, including it in newspaper inserts and advertising on local radio stations during peak listening hours. "That's morning and evening drive times," said Rodenmayer.

The division offers a ham dinner year-round, according to a store-level source. For $26.88, customers get a 3-pound sliced Virginia ham, 2 pounds of dressing and gravy, 1 pound of green beans, a dozen rolls and a pie.

For $32.88, customers got a 5-pound ham, 3 pounds of dressing and gravy, 2 pounds of green beans, two dozen rolls and a pie, said the source.

And if pork were not to their liking, shoppers could purchase for $17 a 12- to 14-pound oven-roasted or smoked turkey that had been prepared and sliced by the deli department. The bird did not come with side dishes, but consumers could purchase them from the store if they chose.

Marsh Supermarkets, Indianapolis,

opted to skip a ham dinner for Easter, but still was hoping for a tidy nest egg of promotional sales.

"We're anticipating tremendous sales gains this year," said Charlie Barnard, director of deli-bakery-food service at Marsh, which operates 81 supermarkets in three states.

He said it was not practical to sell a dinner in the $40 range when shoppers can buy a precooked ham in the company's meat departments, which typically run ham at 98 cents per pound for the holiday.

But the Marsh deli department has hit upon a way to bring in incremental sales, he said. Although full-dinner packages do not traditionally do well, "customers are coming to us and they're purchasing the hams [in the store's meat department] and having us heat them and slice them," he explained.

The stores also offer "component items" such as scalloped potatoes and macaroni and cheese. " There's just less time to do those things, so shoppers are relying on us to take some of that burden off them," Barnard said.

When asked for the primary reason for the deli sales increase, he said, "In our opinion, we feel that we were ready, we were better merchandised and the timing was perfect."

The Easter items were advertised in Marsh's weekly flier on three occasions. One of the ads was a full-color quarter-page spread, "laying out our whole Easter program, along with the cakes, cupcakes and cookies and just planting ideas in the customers' minds that we were there and ready for their business," he explained.

Rini-Rego Supermarkets, a division of Riser Foods, Bedford Heights, Ohio, carried an Easter promotion through both its deli and food-service departments and its Fresh-To-Go Shoppe food courts.

In the delis, the company featured turkeys and sliced and glazed spiral hams, along with a variety of German sausages to satisfy the area's ethnic heritage, said Fred DiQuattro, deli director for the chain.

The food courts offered roasted vegetables, candied carrots and yams, twice-baked potatoes, beans with almonds and turkey dressing, among other dishes.

"We've had them for the past two years since we've had the shops but we've never pushed them the way we did this year," said DiQuattro. "The name of the game is convenience and I believe we've really taken advantage of that."

Rini-Rego is also busy heavily pushing its fresh departments overall, he explained. The departments were promoted in-store, in the circular and in print, television and radio.

And the company's efforts seem to have paid off. "Easter fell very, very well for us this year. It was like having two 'first-of-the-months' for us," DiQuattro told SN.

Flo Hunter, deli-bakery director at Buehler Foods, Jasper, Ind., said people were looking for something different this time when it came to preparing meals for the holidays.

"Our stores were very, very busy for party tray orders -- we have 15 or 16 different varieties of meats and cheeses. They did tremendously well," she said.

The 29-store chain also offered two dinners: a ham platter with potato salad, coleslaw, dinner rolls and a desert salad; and a fully cooked 10-pound turkey with sweet potato casserole, green bean casserole, dressing and rolls. Both retailed for $19.95.

Hunter said she tinkered with the different side dishes accompanying the ham, and cold salads seem to go over the best with the customers. "It was a different type of concept we tried. Families get together and they don't want to spend a lot of time reheating everything," she said.

Buehler also started promoting its Easter offerings earlier this year, about a month ahead of time instead of the usual two weeks. "It's the awareness factor. People start making their plans ahead of time," she explained.

At Harvest Foods in Little Rock, Ark., holiday sales throughout the entire store were up about 5% over the year-ago period, and deli was no exception.

For example, the company carried 4-pound containers of potato salad and 2.75-pound containers of heat-and-serve casseroles, such as a broccoli and rice dish.

"In this area, we have a lot of people getting together for family reunions so they're buying in large quantities," said Kathy McDade, director of deli merchandising. "We don't normally promote those [food-service items] at Easter but we did this year. We have repeat customers who want them, especially when they're having church meetings or get-togethers."

Outdoor barbecues and picnics were popular because of the beautiful weather the South has experienced this spring.

The Easter foods were featured in the chain's circulars and on in-store signs. "You've got traffic in the stores. It's just a matter of getting everything out there and having it ready for them," McDade said.

Picnic items were also hot sellers at Consumers Markets, in Springfield, Mo., said Judy Williams, bakery-deli director. "Customers were buying picnic-type food -- ribs and salads and sandwich meats. I think that was due to the good weather," she said.

Ribs sold especially well, she said, possibly because they were on special at $3.99 a pound, a 50-cent reduction. And the stores were sampling them in the weeks leading up to Easter.

She was disappointed, however, that she did not sell more baked ham dinners, which retailed at $24.99.

She noted that people are less likely to have a formal, sit-down meal when the weather is nice, so next year she is going to try something not as traditional, like a rotisserie turkey breast.

At Rosauers Supermarkets in Spokane, Wash., sales were up "considerably" over the year before, said George Jenkins, deli buyer-merchandiser.

"We did a dinner with honey-maple ham, scalloped potatoes, fruit salad, butter flake dinner rolls and hard boiled colored Easter eggs," he said. "We would set up a little display inside the [deli] case so people would know what they were getting." At $29.99, the dinner served six people.

When asked to what he attributed the sales increases, he, too, said the good weather must have had something to do with it.

In addition to positive Easter sales, retailers received a spring bonus: Easter and Passover fell on the same weekend, leading to a bonus for some supermarkets catering to Jewish shoppers.

Harvey Cohen, deli director of Melmarkets/Foodtown, Garden City, N.Y., said sales of Easter items were probably a little better than those of Passover items but, nevertheless, both holidays are important in this Long Island community.

For Easter, the company offered "just the usual," he said, meaning cheeses, olives and sausages. And spiral hams sold very well. "We sell it whole for the customers to bake themselves," he said.

The chain also has a full array of Passover items. "We had a full line of prepared foods, including souffles, pickles and a lot of side dishes. People placed orders for chickens, turkeys, briskets, macaroons, dried fruits, gift boxes," Cohen said.

And again, the offerings were "nothing unusual."

"There are items that people buy for the holidays that they don't buy the rest of the year. People go crazy with macaroons and after Passover you can't give them away," he said.

For most of the retailers contacted by SN, Passover does not play a large part in their spring plans because their marketing areas do not warrant it.

"We have certain of our stores that have the ethnic breakdown for Passover and we always make wonderful displays of foods [but] they're mostly grocery items," said DiQuattro of Rini-Rego Supermarkets.

He noted that most of the company's Jewish clientele go to a specialty deli if they want to purchase food-service items for the holiday.