IS IT KOSHER?

Make the kosher aisle a destination, and it will bring rewards all year, said retailers who have succeeded in this approach."You can tell when a chain understands kosher," said Yakov Yarmove, the Chicago-based corporate kosher marketing manager for Albertsons, Boise, Idaho.He said the execution team should be challenged and excited about the category. If it is, as with any other category, the attitude

Make the kosher aisle a destination, and it will bring rewards all year, said retailers who have succeeded in this approach.

"You can tell when a chain understands kosher," said Yakov Yarmove, the Chicago-based corporate kosher marketing manager for Albertsons, Boise, Idaho.

He said the execution team should be challenged and excited about the category. If it is, as with any other category, the attitude will show.

It is estimated that 14 million American consumers buy kosher food because it is kosher, but a shopper does not have to be Jewish to seek out kosher food, which is perceived as healthier, cleaner and safer due to the supervision involved in producing it. The new kinds of nontraditional kosher products can be marketed to the non-Jewish customer as crossover items.

The average shopping basket of a kosher consumer contains 40% ethnic items and 60% general items, according to Menachem Lubinsky, president of Integrated Marketing Communications, New York, producer of the Kosherfest trade show.

More and more supermarkets are exposing their category management and senior- and middle-level managers to seminars on how to attract the kosher consumer, said retailers. Another way to learn is from distributors, many of whom send someone to the major chains to give presentations on kosher holidays and kosher products and what retailers need to know.

Kehe Food Distributors, Romeoville, Ill., runs an event called A Taste of Passover, explained Joe Plueger, kosher director for that distributor. For 10 to 12 chains over the years, Kehe Food Distributors has run a large demo program, which lasts four to eight hours a day. Sometimes they bring a klezmer band into the store, or someone performing magic tricks that work for every Seder table. "The children enjoy it because it tells a story," Plueger said.

"You need to have an understanding of the customs, an understanding of the meaning that each food has," said Kevin O'Brien, director of ethnic merchandising for A&P, Montvale, N.J., and former manager of ethnic merchandising for Wakefern, supplier to ShopRite. In the business for 37 years, O'Brien, who creates his own guide for each holiday for store level, said, "You have to have that competitive advantage; you need to pay attention to ethnic merchandising."

He is participating in a panel discussion on kosher retailing at Kosherfest, the annual trade show being held this Tuesday and Wednesday at the Meadowlands Exposition Center, Secaucus, N.J. Kosherfest is held as a pre-Passover show, even though some buyers may have gotten a jump on the holiday by now. Some 40% of sales of kosher products are for that spring holiday, estimated IMC's Lubinsky. He said 92% of American Jews go to at least one Seder, and the host buys matzoh and all the other foods for everybody of course, even if some of the guests are not Jewish.

To be successful, retailers concentrate on not only the main holidays, but a 52-week-a-year business. "The customer will shop you all year if you feature the items year round, not just at the holidays," said O'Brien. "It's something you have to continuously promote."

Yarmove, who, like O'Brien, just changed jobs, agreed that kosher consumers don't shop only the kosher aisle -- they shop the whole store. He told SN that the Jewish Reform movement just decided to review recommending kosher rules to its members. A lot has happened in the past 10 years, he said, as supermarkets awakened to doing a kosher set. "I commend my organization [Albertsons] for realizing it's time to go to the next level," said Yarmove, who started with Price Chopper, Schenectady, N.Y., eight years ago under the tutelage of Mona Golub and called his time with that chain "an absolute pleasure." One year, Golub, who he said was the original category manager for ethnic foods, brought him to Kosherfest. Yarmove credits the show with stimulating sales and introductions of a new, more glamorous range of kosher products.

"Her focus was that kosher should be run and marketed just like any other category," he said. "Don't let kosher be the oddball. The kosher vendors have to be trained just the same as any other vendor," he said. The store's execution team also has to be educated, knowledgeable, challenged and excited about the items.

The foods don't have to be the traditional ones. There are frozen kosher mozzarella sticks, "and kosher TV dinners are booming," Yarmove said. "It's not only blintzes, but pizza." A new item that he is excited about is Jamaica John Bloody Mary mix, which is low in sodium, unlike the traditional image of kosher food.

O'Brien said he thinks items with a Mediterranean flavor are hot to the general market consumer, so he tries to focus on similar foods with kosher certification and thinks of items that have crossover appeal.

A store-within-a-store "kosher corner" that brings in dairy, deli, refrigerated, frozen and grocery in the same part of the store works for retailers who have or who want to attract a religious consumer, retailers said. On the other hand, if a store is located in a trading area that is not so dense with Jewish consumers, integrating the items could suffice, they said, as long as there is an adequate variety.

"We keep adding as we find new vendors. That's why Kosherfest is good -- you always see something you didn't see before," said Harry Jansen, an owner of ShopRite of Hauppauge, N.Y.

He mentioned other members of the Wakefern co-op who do a good job with kosher, such as Steven Ravitz and his Supermarkets of Cherry Hill, Cherry Hill, N.J., and the Foodarama Supermarkets, Freehold, N.J. Both of these chains-within-a-chain have store-within-a-store setups for kosher, which Jansen admired and emulated in his own store.

"If I were a Jew, a setup like that would say to me, 'I want your business. You cared enough to put in this kind of a setup, where I could get anything, anytime of the year, and be kosher at a reasonable cost rather than an astronomical cost."

Mainstream American supermarkets have been slow to recognize the importance of the ethnic shopper, said Richard George, chair of the food marketing department at St. Joseph's University, Philadelphia. In the past few years, however, retailers have awakened to the fact that Hispanic, Jewish and Asian consumers are looking for foods that hold an important place in their homes, and are targeting them more exactly now, he told SN.

At least 40% of the kosher food sold in this country is sold for the Passover holiday. Kosherfest is held in early November to allow buyers time to prepare for that important week-long holiday with its special dietary rules.

Plueger said he loves getting promotions 365 days a year to pass through to his accounts. They should not be done only at the times of Jewish holidays, but all holidays. For example, he said, "at Thanksgiving, I want to see kosher stuffing mix on sale, along with cranberry sauces. At Christmas and the New Year, I want to see [kosher] hors d'eouvres because there are so many mixed marriages out there, so there would be items that everyone can enjoy."

More supermarkets and chain stores are recognizing the need for larger, expanded sections in dry grocery, perishables and frozen kosher, which would include an extensive line of condiments, snacks and cookies, beverages and everyday items that a regular consumer purchases, said Plueger. "A kosher consumer can make a lasagna using kosher noodles, cheese, etc., and be happy with a nice dairy, kosher meal. Or a pizza."

One observer singled out the Publix chain in Florida as one that never used to do much, but in the last two years, has improved its kosher selection in the face of competition from Albertsons. "My sense of it is, Albertsons made them become realists," said this observer. He added that what pushed Albertsons to be so good was the realization that if they could go into a community and cultivate a couple of hundred families, they are looking at a profit center that is quite worthwhile, not to mention the crossover from the vegans, natural and organic people, and the Muslims. "There have been very few examples of major kosher sections that have failed. It was either a failure of research or not knowing how to work with the communities," said the source.

"The holidays are a given," Yarmove said. "It's having that year-round presence that informs the customers that we are in kosher to stay."