FLIP OUT FOR FROZENS

In its 19th year, "March is Frozen Food Month" is as strong as ever, with Web pages playing an increasingly sophisticated role in spiking frozen food sales. A $10,000 national sweepstakes and local giveaways of items like home freezers also aim to inspire consumers to pick up frozen products."We've got radio remotes and penguins all over the place," said Jay Prisco, administrator of the Northern California

In its 19th year, "March is Frozen Food Month" is as strong as ever, with Web pages playing an increasingly sophisticated role in spiking frozen food sales. A $10,000 national sweepstakes and local giveaways of items like home freezers also aim to inspire consumers to pick up frozen products.

"We've got radio remotes and penguins all over the place," said Jay Prisco, administrator of the Northern California Frozen Food Council, San Ramon, one of those with an established Web site, www.peterpenguin.com.

Although the monthlong promotions are spearheaded by the National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association, Harrisburg, Pa., with its penguin mascot, all the action takes place on the local level. Retailers and brokers decorate stores, involve the community and even, in St. George, Utah, have one of the torches from the recently concluded Olympic Winter Games as a store enhancement. Manufacturers cooperate by dropping prices, and the race is on.

As it does every year, Harris-Teeter, Matthews, N.C., made some elaborate decorations, and invited brokers and manufacturers to one of its stores on March 1 to see all the displays and activity, reported Tom Conners of Advantage Sales and Marketing, and president of the Frozen & Dairy Food Council of North Carolina, in Charlotte. Harris Teeter and Ingles Markets have been exceptionally involved in promoting this month's emphasis to the community, Conners added, by carrying a nutritional message about frozen foods to local schools.

"They spend a lot of time sharing information with the schoolchildren and parents, that the nutritional value of frozen food compares favorably with fresh," Conners said. "The past four years have seen record changes in terms of the quality and variety in the cases, and consumers are responding."

Comparing 2001 to 2000, the majority of retailers grew their March dollar sales in frozen food, according to Information Resources, Inc. Last year, nine markets, led by Albany, N.Y., with a 19.5% increase, had dollar sales growth rates of 14% or greater, reported Carl Henninger, vice president, retailer services, for IRI, Chicago.

The Produce for Better Health Foundation, Wilmington, Del., of "5 a Day" fame, has joined in, putting "March is Frozen Food Month" on its Web site, www.5aday.com, to promote frozen fruits and vegetables.

At one of the Harmon City stores in Utah, "We get the Special Olympics involved in it, bring in some of the athletes and sell root beer floats, get a lot of the vendors involved donating stuff -- everybody helps out a lot," said Brandon Brown, grocery manager of the St. George unit. In fact, Harmon City interacts with elementary school students year-round, teaching the nutritional value of frozen foods and vegetables.

Harmon City has an adopt-a-school program, and Brown said he's had different elementary classes making decorations and igloos, to help decorate. "We try to get the community involved in it."

At Luekens Village Foods, Bemidji, Minn., store manager Steve Rauvola does a great deal of decorating, about 40 hours' worth. Sometimes the displays go right to the store's 12-foot ceiling, he told SN. There will be lots of penguins and giveaways, like a DVD player, a microwave oven, and a couple of freezers, plus the traditional couple of hundred-dollar bills given away at the end of March.

Most of all, Frozen Food Month calls upon the planning abilities of brokers and retailers. Mark Byington, vice president of the Minnesota Frozen Food & Dairy Association, Minneapolis, and business manager for Acosta Minneapolis, said, "I think in our market, we continue to struggle to get ahead of manufacturers' planning. Manufacturers are planning further and further out, and we ourselves have to do this, too." He initiated a strategy session to review the plans and how best to drive the category sales.

"We've seen double-digit increases in past Frozen Food Months, and we get great support from our retailers," said Conners. A full-page ad with 12 manufacturers ran March 3, in seven newspapers with a total circulation of 1 million. Display contests are also run on the local level. Radio, a mail-in sweepstakes and a charity component -- a donation to the Make-A-Wish Foundation -- are included, and consumers can get a refund or discount price on admission to the Minnesota Zoo. This effort is typical of the coordination going on among numerous frozen food councils throughout the United States, and they say the level of support from manufacturers is no less this year, despite the economy.

Food retailers serving on the board of directors of the Minnesota council couple their activity with the council's, and these include Lunds, Byerly's, Supervalu, Cashwise-Coborn's, Rainbow Foods, Cub Foods and Nash Finch affiliates in Minnesota and throughout the Upper Midwest. The Minnesota group is one that has recently renamed itself to include dairy promotions, and now has a brochure that includes the March and October frozen events, along with events in June, Dairy Month.

"We're excited about what it's going to do for the category," said Byington. "It's a key focus, not only from us but from the retailers." Retailers even want to reprint the council's ad on their grocery bags as a vehicle that people see every day.

This year, it seems that more attention is being paid to drawing consumers to Web sites. The Frozen & Dairy Food Council of North Carolina is a veteran with its www.carolinacoolfoods.com site, but its leaders realize they have to keep widening their audience by, perhaps, doing an ad with a dot-com theme, incorporating Web addresses of the retailers and manufacturers.

The National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association's site, www.easyhomemeals.com, has recipes, storage and handling tips, and links to frozen food manufacturers, where coupons can be printed.

Under the theme "Ingles Just Chillin' Giveaway," Ingles Markets, Black Mountain, N.C., is giving away a fishing/ski boat chainwide, and a freezer in every store, "because the freezer is your modern-day pantry, and people need more room," Nate Fisher, vice president for frozens, told SN. Specials include a thermal bag from KeepCoolUSA, coupled with a $15 purchase of frozen food; an entertainment center as second prize; and a spa package as third, on the "chillin"' theme.

"We are looking for increased sales and profit; we've had a considerable increase every year in distribution and sales, across all frozen categories," he said.