Retailers got into the spirit of things early this year with new strategies to push Halloween bakery sales -- and profits -- to new levels.Getting a head start, focusing on quality, creating a more profitable mix, building bigger displays, cross merchandising, and sparking employee enthusiasm with contests are just some of the things they're doing.At Quillin's, LaCrosse, Wis., Halloween cookie displays

Retailers got into the spirit of things early this year with new strategies to push Halloween bakery sales -- and profits -- to new levels.

Getting a head start, focusing on quality, creating a more profitable mix, building bigger displays, cross merchandising, and sparking employee enthusiasm with contests are just some of the things they're doing.

At Quillin's, LaCrosse, Wis., Halloween cookie displays were put out the last week in September, and people started buying them right away, officials at the nine-unit independent said. Large, high-ticket cookie trays dominate two island displays of cookies. The trays combine Quillin's-made Halloween cookies with some top-quality, premade seasonal cookies, but the key words are "top quality," said Randy Mayns, Quillin's bakery director. The retail: $15.

"We're not playing the price game. We're focusing on quality. We think customers will pay for quality because that's what they're looking for," Mayns said.

Even though Quillin's has a central bakery, it pays to outsource some seasonal products such as pumpkin-shaped cookies, and other holiday items. Doing that ensures a ready variety of product and also keeps the profit level higher, the bakery director added.

A mix of high-ticket seasonal items and everyday favorites in the same display is designed to maximize sales at Dierbergs Markets, Chesterfield, Mo. For the first time at Halloween, the chain is spotlighting a branded, high-end pie that has gained a following in the area.

"We're featuring Tippin's caramel apple pies at $9.99. They fit right into the fall holiday theme, and we want that big ring," said Tom Merritt, in-store bakery supervisor for the 16-unit Dierbergs.

Merritt explained that Tippin's is a regional restaurant chain that has built its reputation around its signature pies. Dierbergs gets the 9-inch, deep-dish pies frozen, bakes them off, and adds a melted, rich caramel and crumb mixture that it formulates to Tippin's specifications.

To call attention to the pies, the supermarket chain has posted large signs supplied by Tippin's that show a huge color photo of a caramel-dipped apple. The signs says, "We left out the stick. Tippin's caramel-apple pies here."

On the same display table, the chain is featuring one of its everyday best-sellers: mini chocolate-chip cookies.

"Sometimes you step outside the line and forget who brought you to the dance. People love our mini chocolate-chip cookies," Merritt said, adding that they deserve a spot in the Halloween display.

A customer favorite, actually one that has become one of its seasonal signature items -- iced pumpkin cookies -- is what Steele's Markets, Fort Collins, Colo., is focusing on this year.

"We sell tons of our iced pumpkin cookies at $4.99 a dozen or 45 cents each and we want to keep those sales going up," said Barb Harner, bakery director at six-unit Steele's.

Last year, during the month of October, Steele's sold 37,000 of the pumpkin cookies and this year Harner expects to top 40,000. Sales of that item have increased each year, she said.

Even though Steele's, like Quillin's, has a central bakery, the retailer sources the pumpkin-shaped cookies in cutout form, frozen. It then bakes them off and adds its own orange frosting. Harner said concentrating on one item like that and setting a sales goal piques associates' interest.

In an attempt to rev up associates' enthusiasm and put sales over the top, Dierbergs -- for the first time in recent years -- has two separate contests under way. Four cash prizes will be given to in-store bakeries that show the most creativity in their department decorations and increase sales over the same period a year ago. A second competition involves the chain's cake decorators. The winner will get a day at a spa or a gift certificate to a local outdoors/sports store. Department decorations were required to be in place by Oct. 18, but most departments started much earlier, Merritt said.

"The first week in October, several had their decorating done. There are spider webs and coffins hanging from the ceiling," he added.

Retailers said they made their displays larger this year and made a commitment to keeping product piled high on them. Mayns said Quillin's has doubled its display space for Halloween cookies from about 48 square feet to a 96-square-foot island. And Harner pointed out that Steele's displays its pumpkin cookies in at least two places in the store.

"We have a couple hundred dozen pumpkin cookies on a 6-foot display table and also a display in the dairy department," Harner at Steele's said.

Dierbergs has positioned three bakery display tables in the lobbies of its stores as well as maintaining one in the bakery department.

"Having a product in the lobby can boost your sales by 20% for the week. We have the Tippin's pies out there and several Halloween items," Merritt said. He added that the lobby tables also made a good place to introduce two new products Dierbergs has taken on this year -- cupcake cookies and a cookie kit. Cupcake cookies are cookies with extra-thick icing and sprinkles, 12 in a package. The cookie kit contains three 4-inch cookies, a container of orange icing, and sprinkles. It's $4.99.

Retailers told SN they started their Halloween hoopla earlier this year and devoted more space to displaying Halloween items -- cookies for the most part -- as early as the last week in September.

Mayns said he believes giving the holiday season a jump-start is important. There's the immediate payback, but it also sets the tone for the next holidays coming up, he explained. He said Quillin's took its cue from the shopping malls.

"The earlier the product is out there, the better. Get it out early and mass it out. We started out with cookies and later we'll add cakes and cupcakes," Mayns said.

Cookies lend themselves particularly well to early displays because of their longer shelf life and for other reasons, said a consultant who works with supermarkets and manufacturers.

"Kids take them to school in their lunches and for parties. They're also good for adult parties and to take along when you're invited to someone's house for dinner. It's a terrific impulse item," said Ed Weller, president of Weller Co., a North Hollywood, Calif., consulting company.