A MONSTER OF A HALLOWEEN

Like Count Dracula turning into a vampire bat, Halloween is changing dramatically, according to retailers who were asked by SN for a recap of how it went a few days after the monster candy sales event became history.There were noticeable shifts in consumer behavior, apparently encouraged by the timing of the holiday and the transformation of past concerns for child safety into community involvement.For

Like Count Dracula turning into a vampire bat, Halloween is changing dramatically, according to retailers who were asked by SN for a recap of how it went a few days after the monster candy sales event became history.

There were noticeable shifts in consumer behavior, apparently encouraged by the timing of the holiday and the transformation of past concerns for child safety into community involvement.

For example, in the last three years Halloween has fallen on or near a weekend, and consequently the staging of adult parties exploded, some merchandisers pointed out.

At the same time, kiddie celebrations have moved from the streets indoors, in tune with the growth of sponsorship through churches, schools, day care centers, civic organizations and, more noticeably this year, enclosed malls.

Candy buyers said they were largely cleaned out this year, which many gladly described as a record period even before official figures confirmed it. They cited balmy weather virtually everywhere as a key reason for increased consumption of candy by more kinds of people.

Sales lessened for offbeat novelty seasonal candies, as supermarkets went with the proven traditional winners, such as branded chocolate goods in fun sizes from M&M/Mars, Nestle and Hershey. One West Coast marketer reported the miniatures accounted for over 60% of his business.

Retailers said they ran the hot products at as low as $1.99 to help counteract one-shot offerings from mass merchandisers that bottomed out at $1.59.

"That wasn't good for the Wal-Marts and the Targets," one buyer noted. Consumers turned to supermarkets anyway to buy more of the highly consumable candy, after the mass merchants exhausted their stocks, he explained.

What follows are highlights from conversations about the Halloween candy season with supermarket executives.

Lewis Wright candy buyer Bruno's Birmingham, Ala.

It was the best sell-through we ever have had, to the extent that some stores even used the Christmas candy shipped during the week to reset the Halloween tables. The extremely mild weather overall played a major factor in these sales. Lately, I think the holiday has changed, and we have a new audience that we can move product to. I've observed that Halloween over the last two years is getting to be a major party event, ranking with the parties during Christmas and New Year's week. That would include home parties and sponsored parties given by churches and civic groups.

We are able to serve this emerging market through our store people, who know their communities and have a strong, established relationship with them. A lot of business comes our way because of that relationship.

Maura Kennedy grocery buyer King Kullen Grocery Co. Westbury, N.Y.

We had a good sell-through. Maybe it was having the extra day, with Halloween falling on a Monday.

This year, we also kept our margins, even though new discount store competition has come in on a price basis.

About the only thing we did that was different was the survey given to managers right after Halloween, which lists items and helps ordering by store. That way we get a much better idea of what is needed and cut down on being stuck with leftovers. The managers, that way, can refresh their memory on what they had and just don't overorder. They can order by store, instead of waiting until an item is presented, and if new items come in next summer, we will survey for those as well.

Chris Smith retail buyer-merchandiser Fred W. Albrecht Grocery Co. Akron, Ohio

This year, we drove the sell-through with aggressive retail pricing, reflecting the greater competition we're facing.

Target, for example, came into our market. We had to sacrifice some profitability on the performance chocolate end, but we were able to take higher grosses on a good mix this year of nonchocolates.

Of the 30 items we carried for Halloween, 55% of them were nonchocolate, including the Life Savers line, Smarties, SweeTarts, Willie Wonka and Charms. The Brach's pan goods such as Indian corn also continued to do a good job for us.

There's not much we would change for next year, except for trying to move product out to the stores quicker.

With a 95% sell-through in confections, it's hard to argue with that type of success. And over the last four years or so, we've averaged about a 95% sell-through.

Debra Romero candy buyer Hughes Family Markets Irwindale, Calif.

The holiday was better than last year's. It worked out unusually, to my mind, in that fewer kids actually went trick or treating.

Here in California, the enclosed mall-sponsored event is the latest thing, more so this year than last. I have noticed that all malls are advertising something that compares to sort of a big public Halloween party. The kids are pretty much guaranteed a safe event with candy or treats their parents don't have to question.

Also, people buy enough for the kids and for themselves. So we're getting more sales overall from adults who are buying a lot more of the packaged top-branded products, and not as much of the promotional holiday candy.

Andy Knoblauch buyer-supervisor Coborn's Inc. St. Cloud, Minn.

This is our best year. We had what amounted to a three-day Halloween weekend, counting Monday.

What helped us in our Cashwise box stores and Coborn's conventional stores was when mass merchandisers tried to compete. In one case, one came out in their roto the last week just blazing with a price way below cost -- and ran out of stock.

The traditional candy moved the best, as always, but we had a huge success with Hershey items that sell less well. They had a buy-two-get-a-$2-mail-in-refund offer. Also we went back to a candy distributor this year. We had them put in guaranteed-sale Halloween novelty stuff and build attractive displays of up to 24 feet on our image walls. Our sell-through on that was fantastic, too. That improved margins for us -- those aren't items that people compare prices on.

Dayton McMartin grocery merchandiser Homeland Stores Oklahoma City

We estimate Halloween candy sales are up at least 10%, with about an 85% sell-through. We credit the success to a strong merchandising program with a feature ad, and good price points that competed with the mass merchandisers.

The weather, having an extra day for sales, maintaining aggressive seasonal displays, all certainly added to our outstanding turnout. The sales forces of our leading vendors went out and worked individually with each store to really push sales. The big seller was chocolate fun sizes.

We have been seeing an increase in organized Halloween activities in churches and in the community. We get involved in sponsorship of some events, such as the one held by the zoo this year, which give us opportunities for additional sales of candy as well as goodwill.

In our community programs, we will want to tie-in, maybe by donating some products, offering products at a discount or selling them at full retail, depending on the promotion, on the event and our level of sponsorship.

David DiGeronimo grocery merchandiser Victory Super Markets Leominster, Mass.

We saw a bigger increase because of a policy pricing decision we made last year, to capture extra business from competition.

We also rid ourselves of some of the headaches. Last year, we got caught short in the last couple of days. We had to reorder candy within Halloween week and transfer it from the stores that were heavy to the stores that were getting blown out.

We learned from that, to lay off advertising close to Halloween. We have started to sell Halloween candy earlier and try to grab customers with displays and point-of-sale materials as soon as they walk in.

Hopefully, since we are pretty much on top of the movement, this year we were able to come out with very little overage. The basic problem of profitability remains, however. In this market, Halloween candy has become a competitive tool, with everybody just blowing the stuff out at $1.99 and no one making any money on it.

Ross Nixon VP of merchandising Dahl's Food Markets Des Moines, Iowa

Whatever Halloween candy we bought, we cleaned up very well on.

A lot of it was due to something we don't often have control over, the weather. We had 60 degrees plus, compared to 6 inches of snow and freezing rain two years ago.

We benefited from a culmination of factors: the inclination of many people to buy seasonal candy, because they know it's very fresh; the fact that we merchandised it quite early, after Labor Day; the emphasis on the top sellers and lines, and competitive pricing on the fun-size packages.

We don't advertise, and don't decorate as much, although we have massive displays strategically located throughout the stores. Our style is to put the price out and put a sign on it.