PRESEASON GM SALES UP BEFORE MEMORIAL DAY PUSH

The El Nino-influenced warmer winter in some sections of the country invited supermarkets to get an early start on summer merchandising which usually kicks off this coming Memorial Day weekend.Soaring spring temperatures up to 90 degrees in some areas also put consumers into a buying mood for outdoor summer hard goods like lawn mowers, playballs and picnic-related items, said nonfood buyers.Beach

The El Nino-influenced warmer winter in some sections of the country invited supermarkets to get an early start on summer merchandising which usually kicks off this coming Memorial Day weekend.

Soaring spring temperatures up to 90 degrees in some areas also put consumers into a buying mood for outdoor summer hard goods like lawn mowers, playballs and picnic-related items, said nonfood buyers.

Beach balls, barbecue grills and tools, drinkware, flags and picnic accessories began appearing in some supermarket aisles as early as March.

"With a milder winter and spring, the (summer selling) season seems bumped up 30 days," said Art Bundy, director of nonfood at Springdale, Ark.-based Harps Food Stores. "Our grass down here never even died out," he commented.

Harps set up store-level displays of three models of lawn mowers, priced from $100 to $196, in March, a month earlier than usual. Bundy said sales took off almost immediately. "People started buying them a week after they hit the stores."

A warm winter and mild spring generated good bookings for MillBrook Distribution Services, Harrison, Ark., said Marielle Hemschot, vice president of nonfood. "Our bookings were better this year most likely due to the warmer winter, which seemed to dovetail with spring," she said.

"The traditional seasonal temperature break between winter and spring seemed missing this year. Flowers started blooming sooner, grass is growing earlier and people are playing golf and trying to be outside more," she commented.

Imperial Distributors, Auburn, Mass., put out summer items like kid's bubble liquid and cross-merchandised with Easter candy and baskets, said Don Polsi, a vice president at Imperial.

So retailers expect the coming holiday weekend to be cream on top of early sales related to the summer season. Here's what some retailers will be featuring this week for Memorial Day.

Harps will spotlight 20 to 25 items, ranging from picnic supplies and inflatable rafts, to pet supplies, including flea and tick collars and dips. Additional pet supplies were added to the Memorial Day nonfood mix "since pet accessories is a growing part of the overall category," Bundy said. It's also the beginning of flea and tick season, he noted.

Millbrook supplies its retailers with traditional summer merchandise that offer promotional opportunities. Retailers will feature items like flags, play balls, water guns and water bottles and barbecue tools, on power aisles, said Hemschot.

The service distributor reported strong advance orders from retailers for Rubbermaid plastic pitchers and ice cube trays, and yo-yos.

At Camelia Food Stores, Norfolk, Va., 50 basic general merchandise goods from ice tea glasses, priced at two for $1 and three for $1, and iced tea pitchers, tagged at $2.29, will be on display, said Judy Lane, nonfood buyer.

Memorial Day selections from Imperial will be geared around outdoor summer toys like frisbees, balls and bats, cookout accessories and fans. Store level displays will be set up in promotional areas, on end caps and in double-wide grocery aisles.

Overall, pricing will range between 99 cents for grill brushes and barbecue tools, to picnic coolers selling at $14.99 and fans priced up to $25, said Polsi.

He also noted a high demand for yo-yos this year. "Kids are buying expensive $10 to $15 yo-yos, and our retailers are riding the crest with Duncan yo-yos priced $2.99 to $4.99," he said.

Imperial's Memorial Day promotional items carry 35% to 45% retail margins. "All will be sold at a profit. Very rarely are you talking about summer general merchandise as a loss leader," stated Polsi.