FROSTING THE CAKE

CHESTERFIELD, Mo. -- Maintaining high bakery sales in the spring and early summer isn't a problem, but retailers are constantly searching for ways to fill in the gaps when the calendar isn't driving volume.At Dierbergs Markets, here, contests between in-store bakery units proved so successful last fall that when sales begin their natural, seasonal decline this year, the chain will whip up some more,

CHESTERFIELD, Mo. -- Maintaining high bakery sales in the spring and early summer isn't a problem, but retailers are constantly searching for ways to fill in the gaps when the calendar isn't driving volume.

At Dierbergs Markets, here, contests between in-store bakery units proved so successful last fall that when sales begin their natural, seasonal decline this year, the chain will whip up some more, said Tom Merritt, in-store bakery supervisor for the 17-unit chain.

"Spring is just naturally good for bakery sales. We make the most of all the holidays and graduations, and the weather's nice so it puts people in a good mood. Their income taxes are paid. We have no trouble selling cakes and cookies then," Merritt said.

Picnic season and the Fourth of July also keep bakery sales going. But ahead lie the dog days of summer.

As the season nears its end, Merritt will try to keep the momentum going with a sales contest designed to push sales of minicookies for back to school and also to get Moms used to buying the cookies on a regular basis, for lunch boxes and kids' snacks, he said.

"Bakery needs a boost, especially in August when people have spent their money on back-to-school clothes and there's no holiday coming up." While contests that Merritt initiated last year got credit for hiking sales by double-digit percentages, what's even more important are the long-range effects, the bakery supervisor said. The merchandising contests raised employee morale, cultivated cooperation between employees and between departments, fostered good-natured rivalries between stores, and brought in new customers, Merritt said.

"They motivated everybody and got recognition for the bakery. Once you get more customers into the department, you get the opportunity to sell them more. And a customer who's attracted to the department during a contest or a holiday or a special event may start visiting it weekly, or more often."

Within the store, too, the other departments and the store director started paying more attention to what's going on in the bakery as a result of the contests, Merritt said. He capitalized on that fact by publishing pictures and results in a company-wide bakery newsletter he launched last year.

"Bakery sales within a store are usually not so big by comparison to other departments, so we tend to get overlooked as a department. We need to do everything we can to make sure we get our share of attention -- from the store and from our customers," Merritt said.

It began with a Halloween merchandising contest that was so successful in getting employees involved that the company decided to award more than the one prize in each category that it had promised.

"We started out announcing there would be one prize for overall department merchandising and one for the most creative cake decorator. What we wound up with was clearly three winners in the overall category and two in the decorator category.

"One bakery built a display in the store's lobby using a huge coffin with packages of Halloween cookies spilling out of it. For a store to give up that much space, about 20 square feet -- especially to give it to the bakery -- is impressive," Merritt said, pointing out that it demonstrates the commitment and perseverance of the bakery manager at that store.

He emphasized that the creative efforts of participants fostered good relationships between departments.

"I know it must have taken a lot of negotiating with the store director and other departments like grocery. The big thing is the lobby usually has a lot of candy displays at Halloween. For bakery to get part of that space is pretty major. "

The bakery manager at that store, and her husband, who is produce manager at another Dierbergs unit, built the monster coffin at home and brought it in.

Another winning bakery built a cardboard-based haunted house that had the Pillsbury doughboy trapped inside. The other merchandising winner erected a miniature village about 2 feet wide and 4 feet long out of chocolate and put it on top of the service counter.

Cakes done by winning decorators were creative, if a little macabre, Merritt said. One cake was shaped like a giant rat, complete with brown hair made of icing. Another was a brain infested with gummy worms and spiders. There was also a haunted village, in 3-D, on top of one cake. Winning decorators received a gift certificate for a spa or sports store. Departments won $100 for their overall merchandising, and they received certificates.

"What's great, I think, is that they seemed to like the certificates as much as the prizes because they can put them up on the wall. Some of them framed them and got them up right away," Merritt said.

As a morale builder, the contest would be hard to beat, Merritt said. All 17 of the chain's bakeries participated in that Halloween contest and almost every individual associate was involved in some way.

"They worked together to come up with ideas."

Merritt published photos of the merchandising winners in the bakery newsletter and that served to rev up associates for the next contest, he said.

"At other stores, [associates and managers] just couldn't believe some of the pictures. They said they're going to get more creative. Store directors were impressed, too. One told me she's going to get more involved [in future contests]," Merritt said.

When he runs sales contests for a particular product or category, Merritt said, he likes to publish results in the bakery newsletter halfway through the contest, so each store can see how it's doing compared with the others.

"If one store has sold 300 packs of cookies and another has sold 330, it shows the first one it could catch up pretty easily. I had one store director say, after seeing results halfway through a [cookie-sales] contest, that he didn't want his store to be last. He put up a second display at the pharmacy and sold a lot more than he would have. His store didn't win, but it didn't come in last. There's all sorts of competition between stores, and we want to push all the buttons we can."

He'll be using many of the same tactics when he launches the minicookie sales contest next month, Merritt said.

"For example, I'll probably post the results halfway through the contest. They want to know how they stand, and it gets their competitive juices flowing."

Merritt also said he believes in offering a substantial prize. For the back-to-school cookie sales contest that's coming up, he's thinking about making the prize a set of tickets to a St. Louis Rams football game.

"You know those tickets will be especially hard to get this year since the Rams won the Super Bowl. I'll also see how the Cardinals are doing. Tickets to one of their games might be good. We're a sports team town. People love that," Merritt said.

The tickets will go to the department managers whose departments sold the most 36-count packs of minicookies. Then, other prizes -- maybe movie tickets -- will be given to each associate in the winning department, Merritt said.