HOLIDAY SALES RAISE RETAILER SPIRITS

Supermarkets around the country have reason for holiday cheer this season.Retailers reported upbeat sales trends in an SN national survey conducted last week. They credited the holiday gains primarily to an early emphasis on Christmas promotions and consumer faith in the gradually improving economy.Top-performing items included gift baskets, party platters, traditional meats and specialty general

Supermarkets around the country have reason for holiday cheer this season.

Retailers reported upbeat sales trends in an SN national survey conducted last week. They credited the holiday gains primarily to an early emphasis on Christmas promotions and consumer faith in the gradually improving economy.

Top-performing items included gift baskets, party platters, traditional meats and specialty general merchandise items, according to retailers.

The mild weather, while appreciated by travelers, had a mixed impact on sales. Some retailers noted that clear roadways and pleasant forecasts influenced people to leave their houses and shop. Others complained that people spent too much time in malls and not enough in supermarkets.

Charles Collings, president of Raley's, West Sacramento, Calif., said good sales trends during December were further boosted by the effect of a full week leading into the holiday, providing extra time to spend.

That, coupled with an improved economic outlook for the state, was leading to sales increases in both food and nonfood categories, he said.

"We [California] went into the doldrums later than the rest of the country and we're coming out later, but the economy is improving," he said.

New England retailers cited an improving economic picture in reporting sales gains. At Hannaford Bros., Scarborough, Maine, same-store sales increased for the holiday period,

according to Helen Chase, spokeswoman. She said sales of candy, general merchandise and holiday items -- including gift wrap and accessories -- were strong.

"I don't think it [the economy] has totally recovered, but the popularity of our specialty items may be an indicator that consumer confidence is up," she said.

The mild winter provided an added bonus: "The people in New England haven't had to pay higher fuel bills yet, so that may be reflected in their holiday spending," said Chase.

At least one retailer had a different opinion of the effects of the weather on sales.

"With the cooler, colder weather, there may be more of a tendency for people to spend time inside eating," said Daniel Lescoe, vice president of sales and marketing at Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass. "With the nicer weather, it's been a lot easier for people to get out and get to the malls. The malls have been extremely busy."

Nevertheless, he said sales were strong. Big Y did not focus on new-item introductions this year, but instead decided to concentrate on improving quality. "Our bakery, produce, seafood platters and entertainment-types of items [food items geared for entertaining] are selling very well," Lescoe said.

Barry Robinson, executive vice president of Harvey's Supermarkets, Nashville, Ga., said his stores are concentrating on traditional holiday food items. That paid off when cool Southern temperatures convinced people to stay home and eat comfort foods like soup and hot chocolate, thus spurring sales.

"Our sales are right on target -- in line with our expectations and well ahead of last year," he said. The stores usually carry only a limited amount of nonfood merchandise, but has done well with the general merchandise gift items it carried this year.

"We've traditionally done a good job with porcelain dolls and we tried for the first time this year stoneware and it has done very well," Robinson said.

Anthony Rego, chairman and chief executive officer of Riser Foods, Bedford Heights, Ohio, said the company's retail units and the independent operators that Riser supplies have posted strong sales since Thanksgiving. He noted that ham, beef and produce sold well.

Joseph Azzolina Sr., president of Food Circus Supermarkets, Middletown, N.J., said holiday sales at the company's units were improved over last year. "People have a few more bucks in hand and more people are employed," he explained.

Spending was restrained in the Midwest, where the local economic picture, based on harvests and commodity prices, has been mixed and has affected consumer spending power.

"We're responding by lowering the prices in our stores, so we're hoping that that will spur sales," said Ruth Mitchell, director of communications at Hy-Vee Food Stores, Chariton, Iowa.

In spite of local problems, a more upbeat picture for the national economy has spurred shoppers to open their wallets anyway, she said.

Hy-Vee's catering business grew this year and shrimp, meat, cheese and seafood trays have all been popular. Gift baskets and party platters did well, too, probably due to promotional efforts begun soon after Halloween.

Kris McLaughlin, advertising director at Copps Corp., Stevens Point, Wis., said the company has promoted Christmas items since mid-October. Two weeks before Christmas, the company began heavily promoting its hams.

The mild weather has done more harm than good in some of Copps' markets. Snowmobiling is a big business in that region, but the lack of snowfall has meant that some small towns are suffering, she said.