PARTY TIME

With the Super Bowl on the horizon, retail deli departments are getting ready to score big sales. The big game can be especially lucrative for supermarkets located near a team that's chalking up win after win the Baltimore Ravens, for example. Holiday season always creates party sales and that fact coupled with the winning Ravens football team has spurred sales here to an even higher level, said Barry

With the Super Bowl on the horizon, retail deli departments are getting ready to score big sales.

The big game can be especially lucrative for supermarkets located near a team that's chalking up win after win — the Baltimore Ravens, for example.

“Holiday season always creates party sales and that fact coupled with the winning Ravens football team has spurred sales here to an even higher level,” said Barry Scher, vice president of public affairs for Landover, Md.-based Giant Food, an Ahold company.

“Even with the [Washington] Redskins losing this year, the metro Washington area, as well as Baltimore metro, is a sports lover area,” he said. “There's a lot of camaraderie, a lot of parties and that means a lot of party tray sales.”

To get an edge on the competition, as well as catering to consumers looking for nutritious fare, retailers are hefting up their selection of party trays with a healthy image. They're also making up more trays in advance and displaying them in deli service and self-service cases.

Most obvious though is the addition of green salad platters and trays that combine an array of low-fat cheeses and fruit.

“We've added more healthy trays. One of those new in our brochure this year is the garden sampler, which features a wonderful medley of fresh greens,” said a source at Bloom, Food Lion's upscale banner stores.

“We've added a gourmet veggie platter, too, and a ‘Hail Caesar,’ with Caesar salad. It's all about giving Bloom's customers a lot of options,” Karen Peterson, Bloom's media relations manager, told SN.

Bloom, with 35 units, revised its five-page, party tray brochure to make it more eye-catching. In fact, one retail consultant said the Bloom brochure is one of the best he's ever seen.

“I'm telling you, in the land of party brochures, Bloom is a winner,” said Harold Lloyd, of Harold Lloyd Presents, Virginia Beach. “There's so much variety, about 30 trays shown, and they all look delicious.”

Lloyd noted that at least five of the trays feature healthy salads.

“That's a brilliant strategy to differentiate themselves,” he said.

In Wooster, Ohio, Buehler's Fresher Foods has seen veggie and dip trays, in particular, increase significantly in the last couple of years, said Mary McMillen, the 11-unit independent's director of consumer affairs.

“We make our own fresh dill dip here and that goes with those trays. Ethnic is gaining, too,” McMillen said.

While wings and fried chicken remain the big sellers for football-watching parties, Buehler's has tweaked some of the staples. The stores offer Thai-flavored wings, for example.

Like other retailers, Buehler's this season is making up more trays in advance and displaying them prominently to spur impulse buys.

“Unlike Christmas or Thanksgiving parties which people plan for, football parties seem to be more of a last-minute thing,” McMillen said.

Therefore, customers are glad to see something enticing they can pick up in a hurry. That's true at Bashas', too, said Rob Johnson, spokesman for the 72-unit Phoenix-based chain.

At Bashas', the delis are making up more “impulse” trays, which is something new this season, he said.

“Convenience is the focus and it does sell,” Johnson said.

While some retailers consider themselves lucky because they are near the home base of some teams seemingly headed for the Super Bowl, Johnson said Bashas' party tray business blossoms this time of year no matter who's playing.

“It seems like everybody who lives in Phoenix is from somewhere else. Sports bars around here have to have a lot of television screens showing different games,” Johnson said.

“You're just as apt to see them watching the [Chicago] Bears.”

At Buehler's, the weekend of Jan. 6-7 will rival Super Bowl weekend for party sales, McMillen said. That's because Ohio State will be competing against Florida for the national college football title. It has revved up excitement, too, that Ohio State's quarterback Troy Smith received football's prestigious Heisman Trophy this year, McMillen said.

“It's got everybody here excited that Ohio State is in the nationals,” she said. “That weekend before will be huge for us. The game is on the 8th, a Monday.”

Work hours in the deli will be ramped up by about 20% that weekend, she said, and everybody will be decked out in Ohio State's colors — scarlet and gray.

“Wings, chicken and potato salad will be the biggest items, and we'll have calzones this year,” she said. “Our bakery is making them.”

While simple fare reigns in most delis at Super Bowl time, that's not necessarily so at West Point Market in Akron, Ohio.

“Our customers aren't drinking beer and eating chips. We sell a lot of pate trays with different chutneys, for instance,” said Rick Vernon, chief executive officer at the single-unit, upscale supermarket.

In addition to the pate tray and lobster spread orders, the store has seen an increase in orders for veggie trays, Vernon said.

“We put a lot of variety on there. Broccoli, cucumbers, our dips we make here,” Vernon said. “Our own guacamole, too. We sell that by the bucketful for Super Bowl.”

But even as West Point Market's customers look to add healthy trays to their party tables, they remain big fans of the retailer's locally revered dessert trays. A chocolate-tasting tray is a big seller.

“And fondue is making a comeback,” Vernon said. “We have a vegetable tray with cheese fondue and a fruit with chocolate fondue. They go together. That's a meal.”

In the past, West Point's party business had been somewhat tied to the economy because business was centered around corporate parties, Vernon said.

“But we're getting more individual orders now,” he said, adding the orders help the store gain more exposure.

While retailers agreed that party trays, especially fruit trays, can be very profitable, it's the exposure that is most valuable, they said.

Harold Lloyd underscored that point.

“It's the perfect way to buddy-up with people in the community,” he said. “They're showcasing their home or celebrating an event and you can touch 20 or 30 people [with your product]. That's great.”