HARRIS TEETER

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Harris Teeter chain here is a strong fresh-foods retailer -- and that presents a tough challenge to the frozen foods department, said Larry Nivens, director of grocery, dairy and frozen foods.In essence, that challenge is to promote well, or maybe perish."There's more competition inside the stores," Nivens explained. "We've started seeing a lot of things coming on board, and

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Harris Teeter chain here is a strong fresh-foods retailer -- and that presents a tough challenge to the frozen foods department, said Larry Nivens, director of grocery, dairy and frozen foods.

In essence, that challenge is to promote well, or maybe perish.

"There's more competition inside the stores," Nivens explained. "We've started seeing a lot of things coming on board, and something [in the store] has got to make room for changes," such as coffee bars, expanded prepared food, delis and bakeries, restaurants and so on.

That activity means the pressure's on the other departments, frozens included. "We have got to make sure we are delivering on frozen food's edge in promotions," Nivens said.

"We've got to find out what our critical items are. No longer can we use conventional wisdom or the wisdom of tradition. We've got to find edges; the me-too approach won't work anymore. Frozens has got to have distinguishable differences in the store."

So far, frozens has been a strong contender at Harris Teeter,

which Nivens attributes to promotions that are "fresh, keeping up lots of energy." Last year, he said, the 141-store chain had a "very healthy" $96 million in sales, contributing 7% of total sales and up 11% from the year before. So far this year, sales in frozens are up 13.73%, he added.

What's more, frozens' profitability is outpacing the rest of the store, he said. Last year profits were up 13.8%, and earnings have grown another 19.35% so far in 1994.

The chain's structure for frozens is to create "a store within a store," noted Nivens. "We work on having a wide selection. That does not mean having duplicity, but having variety.

"We also try for the best quality available in our selection. We support open-code dating and would like to see more of it." Nivens added that Harris Teeter keeps an eye out for "new and innovative food fashion. We address new items that way. It's a new way for us to look at lines, but that's clearly where the business is heading, and we've got to learn how to take advantage of food fashion trends."

The chain strives to keep its profile high with "hard-hitting promotions, which we have learned a lot about," said Nivens. Driving frozen brands and categories alone, however, will not work in tomorrow's environment, he added, alluding again to the need for frozens to stand out against other departments.

"Frozens has to be positioned as an engine to drive total store sales." For Nivens, that includes integrating all controlled brands strongly into the branded mix. "We are committed to national brands, but we are also upgrading our controlled brands," he said, mentioning the chain's own Hunter all-natural ice cream, the finest quality available in our market and only at Harris Teeter.

The chain is relying more on demos to move frozens' promotional impact beyond the print ad.

"The club stores are teaching us some lessons," he said. "Meatballs can be fun at 11:30 a.m., for example. Selling is not just in newsprint; you must sell as well inside the store. The shopping trip is boring, and you can draw attention to the department." One way Harris Teeter does so, he added, is with animated characters. "Kids marketing is important to us."

Indeed, as part of National Frozen Food Month in March, the chain serves breakfast to kids and gives them tours of the frozen food department, Nivens said. "The stores get creative with decorations, bringing in ice sculptures," he added.

Another "successful promotion edge" for frozens at his chain is the use of microwave promotions that tie microwavable products to oven giveaways. Last year Nivens timed the event with the store's back-to-school promotion and then watched frozen department sales increase 17.9% for the period, while total store sales jumped only 14.8%. In addition, frozen cases shipped enjoyed a 21.4% hike.

Another Nivens favorite is frozen vegetable sales, which he sees competing for the consumers' dollar against fresh produce, a tough task. With aggressive promotion, however, frozens is again able to stand out, with its vegetable business up 13.2% off a recent promotional event, accompanied by a 21% increase in case shipments.

Harris Teeter's March promotion was a disappointment in 1993, which Nivens attributed to the brutal storm that pounded the East Coast at that time. Determined to regain momentum in 1994, the chain selected strong items to promote "to drive the total business," and generated more in-store energy. The monthlong campaign also was tied to a chainwide promotion to benefit the charitable organization Habitat for Humanity.

The result was "our most successful event ever, with case sales up 33%, dollar sales up 17% and total store sales up 13%," he recounted.

The chain continues to face forward, and Nivens will find frozens' role within that future. "My company is in the middle of change for frozens and the total company," he said. "We will focus more on selling. We have to."