RETAILERS RING UP ENCOURAGING HOLIDAY SALES

Many food retailers around the United States are reporting good sales this holiday season, fueled by value pricing, promotions and a customer base that has been refraining from travel in the wake of Sept. 11.Some operators said they are hopeful the good business trend will continue for the remainder of the season.Retail giant Wal-Mart, Bentonville, Ark., is posting strong numbers on the food side

Many food retailers around the United States are reporting good sales this holiday season, fueled by value pricing, promotions and a customer base that has been refraining from travel in the wake of Sept. 11.

Some operators said they are hopeful the good business trend will continue for the remainder of the season.

Retail giant Wal-Mart, Bentonville, Ark., is posting strong numbers on the food side of its supercenters.

"What we've seen is that more people are value shopping, without a doubt," said Tom Williams, spokesman. "Many consumers who wouldn't normally come into a Wal-Mart are now shopping here.

The big challenge will be to retain these customers when the economy strengthens."

The day after Thanksgiving, the company reported its strongest-ever, one-day sales total of $1.25 billion at its discount stores, supercenters and Neighborhood Markets.

Williams told SN that food has consistently been a strong portion of sales, and that food sales were above average the week leading up to Thanksgiving.

"We've noticed a lot of increases in midweek shoppers. A lot of these people are picking up food at a supercenter instead of making the trip to a supermarket," Williams said.

Ron Dennis, president and chief operating officer at Farm Fresh, Virginia Beach, Va., said that he was happy with Thanksgiving sales at the company's 38 stores, due to several promotions the chain put on during the weeks leading up to the holiday.

"I am expecting a great holiday season, even with the competition heating up," Dennis said. He noted that several stores were offering triple and quadruple coupons in his market area to lure customers in for holiday shopping.

Dennis also said that the seven military bases in the area provide a great source for holiday shoppers throughout the season, and that the company is constantly reaching out to its military customers.

"This is a big military area, and the return of the USS Enterprise really brought a lot of people back into the market and helped increase sales. We even had a promotion where we gave 5,000 bouquets of flowers away to the men and women who were at the docks expecting the return of their loved ones," Dennis said.

Barry Scher, vice president of public affairs at Giant Food, Landover, Md., a division of Ahold USA, Chantilly, Va., told SN that Thanksgiving sales increased significantly at Giant stores this year, and said people deciding not to travel this year was a big help.

"We were more than pleased with our Thanksgiving sales. We attribute this sharp increase to the fact that, in the Washington D.C. area, people did stay at home more than ever before," Scher said.

Sally Sanborne, director of marketing at Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif., said, "We were very pleased with our Thanksgiving sales. We exceeded last year's numbers and we anticipate we will hold the momentum throughout the season."

Sanborne also noted that along with the strong sales, the actual turkeys sold were smaller than in years past.

"Whether or not this means that families were staying home and not traveling far to be with relatives, we can't say for sure, but the sales figures would indicate that," Sanborne said.

John Catsimatidis, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Gristedes Markets, New York, said the stay-at-home travel attitude has been starting to change, a development which impacted Thanksgiving-period sales. "We did OK, but nothing special," he said. "In New York this holiday weekend, people were finally starting to travel and get away. Even I sent my kids away for the long weekend."

Catsimatidis said that his business was also coming off of a spike in sales in September and October, since many people weren't traveling.

"I think people will continue to start traveling through Christmas and New Year's, so we don't expect any big jumps in sales," Catsimatidis said. He also noted that he is not planning on any major promotions during the holiday season.