OUT LIKE A LION

March, observed as National Frozen Food Month, still has the power to get retailers excited, even in the 19th year of the frozen food industry's annual promotion and Gold and Silver Penguin contest.This year's promotion resulted in a slight increase in the number of units sold (0.3% over the year before), but a 5.7% increase in dollar sales for March 2002 as compared with the previous March, according

March, observed as National Frozen Food Month, still has the power to get retailers excited, even in the 19th year of the frozen food industry's annual promotion and Gold and Silver Penguin contest.

This year's promotion resulted in a slight increase in the number of units sold (0.3% over the year before), but a 5.7% increase in dollar sales for March 2002 as compared with the previous March, according to figures from Information Resources Inc., Chicago. This year marked the ninth year that frozen dollar sales outpaced the rest of the store in March, according to the National Frozen & Refrigerated Foods Association, Harrisburg, Pa., which launched the promotion in 1984, and the Gold and Silver Penguin awards that accompany it.

The NFRA judges award Gold Penguins and Silver Penguins for outstanding performance in increasing sales, activity and interest in the frozen food department, and based on certain criteria. "Sometimes it's a very fine line between the two," noted Skip Shaw, executive director of the NFRA.

In March, Tops International store in Amherst, N.Y., displayed a huge endcap that changed the themes and decoration every week, winning it a Gold Penguin award for Retail Endcap Display from the NFRA.

"Our frozen food sales were up by 16% for the period," said Ron Ferri, the store manager. He cited demos for Hot Pockets done by the store chef, who wore his toque, as contributing to the success of March as Frozen Food Month. Tops, an Ahold division based in Williamsville, N.Y., has won Gold Penguins before, but this was the first time for this store.

Overall Store Promotion this year was won by the Wegmans store in Ithaca, N.Y. Oscar Gile, frozen food manager there, credited two women who work in the in-house sign shop for their excellent work. "The little scenes they made for me went a long way," he said. Above the frozen cases were platforms with scenes of penguins ice skating, gardening, making pizzas and eating ice cream. All along the outside cases were little penguins above every chalkboard sign. "The decorations really helped out. For the guys in the department, our part was keeping everything stocked nice. We kind of went along with whatever our warehouse and our suppliers had in the ad that was hot. We made endcap displays of those. We had a modest goal for sales increases, but, unfortunately, we didn't quite hit it. Still, that contest turns what could be a bad month into a good one," Giles said. National Frozen Food Month was devised to spur sales of frozen food in a lackluster month, which now leads the calendar, thanks to all the promotions.

In the Retail Corporate Chains or Divisions category, Harmon City, West Valley, Utah, won gold in the small chain category (10 to 50 stores). For chains with fewer than 10 stores, the winner was Lofino's Food Stores, Dayton, Ohio, supplied by Supervalu. Three Southeastern chains won Gold Penguins in the large size category, 50 or more stores. They are Harris Teeter, Matthews, N.C.; Ingles Markets, Asheville, N.C.; and Winn-Dixie Stores, Jacksonville, Fla.

One of the things that made 2002 memorable was the launch of the NFRA's new "Bring Us To Your Table" logo, said Travis Hubbard, who is in charge of frozens for Harris Teeter, which had two stores singled out for the quality of their displays.

Retail Best Department display was won by Harris Teeter Longleaf Mall store, Wilmington, N.C., assisted by Crossmark as the advising broker, Charlotte, N.C. It was decorated with a "Foods of the World" theme. A Silver Penguin also went to the Harris Teeter Steven's Mills store in Matthews, N.C., for Best Retail Department Display. That store was decorated with the new NFRA logo, and tied in with the release of the movie "Ice Age." Anyone who bought five private-label items or $10 worth of Harris Teeter frozen foods got a free pass to the movie.

"A lot of times, the branded manufacturers get all the attention, so we decided to promote private label," Hubbard explained. Top sellers, he recalled instantly, were Harris Teeter's own yeast rolls, its Premiere Selection lasagna, Hunter ice cream, garlic toast and Harris Teeter sliced peaches.

Altogether the chain sold a lot more frozen food this March, Hubbard told SN. "We beat last year's, which had been a record. And we did that with 20 less stores [since the chain withdrew from the Atlanta market]. It was a huge campaign. The movie tie-in was a big move for us this year. We're already thinking about next year."

For Dave Franz, merchandiser/buyer, frozen food and dairy, for Lofino's Food Stores, the winner among small chains, the last two years have seen the strongest support for the program. (His company operates four Cub Foods stores and a Lofino's, plus some Save-A-Lot stores that did not participate.)

"We actually did just shy of a 10% increase over the year prior, which was extremely strong," Franz told SN. Massive displays and demos every weekend during March, plus giving away coupon books in the store, helped achieve that result.

In his view, success in frozen foods is a matter of the old rule of thumb: the right item at the right price at the right time. "Everybody has their ovens turned on in March," he noted.

He said his chain's frozen food sales witness constant increases, and opined that the improving quality of the frozen foods has a lot to do with it.

"Frozen food is fun because there is a lot of growth, a lot of new items, and constant change. It is becoming more and more a destination department than it once was," Franz said. He praised Patty Fishman, "a great frozen food leader at Supervalu," who spearheads the effort along with Dave Williams, account executive for Advantage Sales & Marketing, and Betty Klein, with Acosta, who manages the giveaways, toaster ovens, microwaves and gift certificates, per store.

"Absolutely we sell more product [due to March promotions]!" exclaimed Joanne Gage, senior director of consumer and marketing services, Winn-Dixie. "And we have seen a lift since then." For Gage, this year -- her first with Winn-Dixie -- was memorable because of what she described as the well-orchestrated coordination among the grocery department, the marketing department, retail operations and the vendors.

"There was a lot happening in our stores. Our associates won incentive awards for sales, for displays, for a variety of things. And in community events, we did a lot through schools, hospitals and Ronald McDonald House," a nonprofit organization that houses parents of sick children while the children are getting medical care away from home. Winn-Dixie also donated ice cream for a social held by the Children's Home Society, an adoption agency, to introduce prospective adoptive parents to the children.

Gold Penguins also went to two wholesalers, Nash Finch, Edina, Minn., and Roundy's, Pewaukee, Wis. Roundy's has partnered for the last two years with Pillsbury, now General Mills, promoting some of the major brands and pairing them with complementary items in Roundy's own brand. Cross merchandising is done to suggest a whole meal, such as by running Green Giant Create A Meal with Roundy's frozen garlic bread, or Hungry Jack breakfast waffles and Roundy's frozen concentrated orange juice.

"We put together a corporate template and sent it out to our divisions," said Ken Foucault, corporate director of frozen foods for Roundy's. "We feel the opportunity to cross-merchandise gives us an excellent opportunity to build trial, gives us an excellent chance to build a customer base."

Local frozen food associations that won Gold Penguins this year are Arizona Frozen Food Council, Phoenix; North Florida Frozen & Refrigerated Food Association, Florahome, Fla.; Frozen & Dairy Food Council of North Carolina, Charlotte; and the Frozen & Refrigerated Food Council of Northern California, Dublin, Calif.

Altogether, there were 34 Gold Penguin winners and 43 Silver Penguin winners in various categories, out of hundreds of entries from across the country. All the winners will be honored at a luncheon during the National Frozen Food convention in mid-October in Orlando, Fla.