PRODUCE, FLORAL OFFER MORE THAN JUST PUMPKINS

Halloween-themed products are as abundant in the produce and floral departments as a harvest of apples. The trick is knowing how much to offer, and how best to merchandise them, according to retailers and category experts interviewed by SN."Halloween is just a conglomeration of all different items -- candles, giftware, centerpieces -- unlike what you sell on Mother's or Valentine's Day, which are

Halloween-themed products are as abundant in the produce and floral departments as a harvest of apples. The trick is knowing how much to offer, and how best to merchandise them, according to retailers and category experts interviewed by SN.

"Halloween is just a conglomeration of all different items -- candles, giftware, centerpieces -- unlike what you sell on Mother's or Valentine's Day, which are mostly just fresh flowers," said Keith Parris, floral supervisor, Dierbergs, St. Louis. "It's more decorative-focused."

The decorative aspects open new doors of opportunity, but the focus should remain flexible enough to expand the sales period beyond the holiday itself. Debbie Robinson, former vice president of floral for Randalls, Houston, said floral managers can protect their margins if they develop an umbrella theme that covers the entire autumn season.

"Once the kids go back to school, we start with Homecoming, and we bring in the 'Splash of Autumn' theme at the same time. Then there's Halloween, still with the autumn theme, and when Halloween is over with, we pull out the scarecrows, but you keep the harvest theme right through Thanksgiving," she said. "It becomes a marathon of the same colors, only with different reasons to buy, and always circled around kids, family and home."

Indeed, the earlier retailers set up their departments to reflect the coming season and its holidays, the longer they have to make the sale. Tom Lavagetto, principal of The Floral Consulting Group, Spokane, Wash., said displays should be in place no later than Oct. 1.

"The whole theme needs to change to fall right after Labor Day, and as soon as you hit Sept. 30, you should be into Halloween," he said. "Sales always finish strong, but you'd be surprised how many Halloween, fall-type parties there are for adults and kids before the actual holiday. It's become even more popular now to throw parties rather than allowing kids to go trick-or-treating door to door because of all the safety issues out there."

Balancing inventory and demand depends not only on past sales but the preferences of the store's consumers, he added.

"It's not the big-ticket items so much as a lot of smaller items," he said. "The nonperishable end of the business has a lot of trinkets, items that are obviously very seasonal, like ghosts and scarecrows and witches. But you have to be careful that you don't get too carried away stocking this stuff because it is so seasonal, and you're stuck with it once the event passes."

Balloons are popular with consumers and retailers alike, but for different reasons. For operators, balloons represent a high net-gross margin.

"You're beyond a 50% margin on them, even when you factor in the helium," said Robinson. "You're in the 60s on the mylar balloons, and even higher on the latex ones. Latex is about 15 cents cost, on average, and then there's a little bit of helium. You'll sell one for 99 cents, or $9.99 a dozen. And, everybody usually goes for the multiple purchase."

Lavagetto agreed, noting that even with 20% shrink, floral can still garner upwards of 40% net-gross profit. However, he warned that retailers need "at least 50% going in, or you could end up with a very unsatisfactory result, because unless you sell clean, which is very unlikely with such seasonal goods, you're going to be disappointed."

At Dierbergs, balloons make up a multidepartment decoration that adds flavor to the entire store, and allows floral to grab impulse sales outside of its own merchandising area, Parris said.

"Floral has its own off-street entrance in our stores, so we decorate our display windows in the front of the shop, and then on the inside of the store we have our front-line area with Halloween merchandise," he said. "We merchandise balloons at the front checkouts and also in our greeting card aisle, and again in floral, so there are three locations. It depends, really, on what's going on in the other departments, like bakery."

Robinson loved what balloons could do for sales at Randalls, not only because of the margins, but because of their ability to make a big impression on shoppers.

"Halloween is all about kids, and balloons are a perfect tie-in. Having 25 shaped balloons on display at all times makes a lot of sense, because they're big and they keep getting better and better because the styles are different all the time, and they're fresh and new and exciting," she said, noting a 36-inch shaped balloon sells for up to $10.

Natural products sell very well, too, and potted mums are traditionally a bestseller, retailers told SN. Among the hot varieties this year are Pele, a large daisy mum with a two-tone hue that shifts from bright yellow to red/orange as the autumn progresses; and Vyron, another daisy sporting a brown center ringed by pure yellow.

"We really get into decorating porches. It doesn't feel like autumn in Texas, so we find that a lot of our customers like to decorate to give their homes an authentic feel," said Robinson. "We've also sold bales of hay, Indian corn and gourds and miniature pumpkins.

The hay usually sells anywhere from $6 to $10, depending on the supplier, she said.

Dierbergs' Parris said that giftware like candle holders and higher-quality decorations are top sellers in his region.

"Adults buy for decoration, and I think they enjoy the holiday as much as children do," he said. "Fall leaves and any botanicals that are fall-related -- pumpkins, artificial acorn stems, things like that -- sell very well right through Thanksgiving, even if they're pumpkin-scented candles."

Halloween-themed bouquets and centerpieces have also become sought-after additions to homes, where customers want fresh flowers to mark the event. Parris said centerpieces and bouquets of cut carnations and mums are sold in decorative sleeves, with arrangements adorned with black twigs or fake spider webs.

"Halloween is more of an event than a holiday, and it's shown significant strength beyond many people's expectations," said Lavagetto. "Operators should be selling very aggressively during the season, because it's not just a two-day holiday -- it's a whole month of opportunity."