HALLOWEEN JUMP-STARTS THE HOLIDAY PUSH AT RETAIL

With a Halloween weekend kicking off the fourth quarter this year, supermarket chains are projecting solid seasonal sales, with 30% to 40% of their general-merchandise volume expected to be generated during the October-through-December period.Expectations are running high despite several distributors' and retailers' complaints about late shipments of imports from Asia. A shortage of empty cargo containers

With a Halloween weekend kicking off the fourth quarter this year, supermarket chains are projecting solid seasonal sales, with 30% to 40% of their general-merchandise volume expected to be generated during the October-through-December period.

Expectations are running high despite several distributors' and retailers' complaints about late shipments of imports from Asia. A shortage of empty cargo containers in Asia has delayed delivery of some imported promotional goods, like holiday lighting sets and stuffed toys, they said.

"Some of our Christmas lights and our Christmas holiday bears were delayed due to a container shortage," noted Gary Schloss, vice president of general merchandise at Carr Gottstein Foods, Anchorage, Alaska.

"The problem has been that Asian countries are shipping more here than we're sending back to them, which has created some slow deliveries," said Art Bundy, nonfood director at Harps Food Stores, Springdale, Ark.

Associated Wholesalers Inc., York, Pa., expected late delivery on some seasonal and plush toys and large tree ornaments, which Charles Yahn, vice president of general merchandise, said he understood was due to a shortage of shipping containers for Asian exporters.

Fourth-quarter promotions represent some of the highest seasonal general-merchandise sales at supermarkets, said Richard Tilton, president of the General Merchandise Distributors Council, Colorado Springs, Colo. The GMDC has conducted several best-practice studies on seasonal merchandising.

By falling on a weekend this year, Halloween has extended the shopping time for holiday purchases at supermarkets.

"Halloween did very well for us, and we've sold many children's and adult costumes from $9.99 to $29.99," said Schloss.

For Carr Gottstein, the fourth-quarter nonfood seasonal promotion area "is extremely important to our total general merchandise sales. It is the most important aisle in the whole store during that time," said the retailer.

This year the chain will highlight a version of the popular game Monopoly in its fourth-quarter general-merchandise seasonal lineup, at $25. In the Parker Bros. Milton Bradley game, "players can travel the board [making acquisitions] from Anchorage through to Nome," said Schloss.

Carr, which has exclusive distribution rights to sell the IDITAROD (dog sled race) Monopoly game in Alaska during the Christmas period, will also feature a Junior Trek Through Alaska game for $16. The retailer devotes 144- to 240 feet to the seasonal aisle, which is positioned mid-store.

The chain starts to book its Christmas orders and plan space in February, while Halloween and Thanksgiving nonfood buying is done in March and April.

Nonfood buyers are projecting a good year for general-merchandise sales overall this year. "We're looking forward to a strong holiday season and strong consumer confidence," said the Carr executive.

"In Alaska this year every man, woman and child has received a record $1,500 from the State of Alaska Oil Revenue Fund, which has helped the economy," Schloss said.

Harps Food Stores turned in a strong Halloween season, with makeup products and kits doing exceptionally well. The retailer expects the same sales results for the fourth quarter.

"Many adults seem to be getting into makeup for Halloween, and have for quite some time," Bundy explained, adding that the mix included a limited offering of children's and adult costumes priced up to $24. Halloween makeup products retailed at $1, and went up to $2.47 for family makeup kits.

Harps decorates its holiday nonfood displays with streamers and signage on endcaps and at seasonal aisles.

For Thanksgiving the retailer will feature a wide assortment of themed turkey and pumpkin candles, foilware roasters, turkey trusses and basters. For Christmas the displays will include brass gift items like candle holders and figurines that retail under $20, and a large selection of 150 toys at price points of under $5 and under $10.

Booking holiday orders is a continuing process at Harps. It places orders at closeout shows attended during the year.

The chain projects a good year for general merchandise, and usually starts building its Thanksgiving and Christmas displays right after Halloween. "The earlier they are out the better, because there are so many paydays until Christmas, and that's important to people in our area," Bundy said.

The fourth quarter is a prime time for cross merchandising general merchandise, and generates "a real big [sales] bump," said Mark Combs, grocery merchandiser at J.C. Groub, Seymour, Ind.

Seasonal general merchandise accounts for about 33% of Groub's total annual general-merchandise sales, said the retailer. Plans call for cross merchandising housewares and bakeware implements at produce, near meat cases, on seasonal endcaps and at front-wall holiday baking displays.

"Consumers are more apt to buy things like foil roasting pans, cookie sheets, cookie cutters and aluminum bakeware in November and December than the rest of the year," said Combs.

"Our displays of nuts in produce always have nutcrackers J-hooked nearby, and meat thermometers, basting brushes and roasting pans are always placed near hams and turkeys [in the meat case]," he added. Groub will also feature a limited supply of low-end toys priced up to $7.99, and plush toys that will retail for up to $12.99.

At Associated Wholesalers the fourth quarter represents 30% to 40% of yearly general- merchandise business, said Yahn.

However, he said, in spite of rapid fourth-quarter sales turns, "our spring and summer and cough-and-cold, which we consider a season, are becoming almost as big as, if not bigger than, Christmas."

Yahn said AWI shipped Christmas goods through the month of October to some 280 New England and Mid-Atlantic retailers, most of whom maintain designated 20- to 80-foot promotion areas.

The seasonal general-merchandise mix at Associated Grocers, Baton Rouge, La., will consist of a broad range of items. For Halloween, retailers had displays of plastic pumpkins priced at $1.99, costumes for $4.99 to $19.95 and facial makeup at 99 cents to $1.19.

With Halloween falling on a weekend, Sonny Ellis, director of health and beauty care and general merchandise, said, "There should be a surge, with big holiday sales."

He said for Thanskgiving retailers will display plastic turkey serving platters at $3.99, foil roasting pans at 99 cents and small fabric turkey and scarecrow table-top decorations for $1.99 to $19.95. Christmas plush animals will be tagged at $3 to $19.95.

Ellis is projecting a good year for general merchandise with steady sales. "The fourth quarter should account for 10% to 15% of our overall annual general-merchandise sales," he stated.

Dorothy Lane Market, Dayton, Ohio, will merchandise upscale kitchen tools, domestics and bakeware in the fourth quarter.

The item assortment includes Berndes-Kaiser nonstick bakeware from Germany, retailing from $10 to $75 for jelly roll pans, cheesecake pans and other bakeware. Also, maple, cherry and oak cutting boards with the store logo etched on the top are priced around $19.99, said Wally Miller, grocery manager.

The items, displayed on metro racking, include wooden bowls and printed aprons and towels, at $16 to $20, "and pepper mills, which do super in the fourth quarter, priced from $10 to $40," said Miller.