SALES START TO REFLECT UPCOMING ST. PATTY'S

Everybody is Irish on St. Patrick's Day. And that's no blarney, say supermarket retailers who know the holiday is upon them by the rise in corned beef sales."St. Patrick's Day is an important holiday from a food standpoint because it seems like almost every American household will be having corned beef and cabbage on that day," said Bill Vitulli, vice president of community and government relations

Everybody is Irish on St. Patrick's Day. And that's no blarney, say supermarket retailers who know the holiday is upon them by the rise in corned beef sales.

"St. Patrick's Day is an important holiday from a food standpoint because it seems like almost every American household will be having corned beef and cabbage on that day," said Bill Vitulli, vice president of community and government relations for A&P, Montvale, N.J.

Sales of corned beef during the week prior to St. Patrick's Day, which is March 17, typically account for between 85% and 90% of the chain's corned beef sales for the year, he said.

So A&P and other retailers are now planning in-store displays, writing ads and developing pricing strategies in preparation for a week they anticipate will bring brisk sales.

Rex White, meat market manager for Kelley's Supermarkets, Niceville, Fla., said it is the peak season for corned beef.

"It is an item we sell year-round, but this is the Super Bowl for this item," said White. "I would say sales triple during this period."

As with other highly competitive holiday items, prices are often forced down to lure customers, according to the retailers surveyed. And they expect this year to be no different, with prices dropping an average of $1 per pound to between $1.39 to $1.59 from a typical range of $2.59 to $2.79.

"You will find, corned beef will be an excellent buy," said Vitulli. "It is similar to turkeys at Thanksgiving when they are sold well below cost."

A&P's hope, said Vitulli, is "when people come in to buy them, they will also buy everything else to fill out the meal."

Stewart Wong, meat buyer for Bel Air Markets, West Sacramento, Calif., said St. Patrick's Day "is a good holiday for us."

And, unlike some other highly perishable items, corned beef can keep longer and overordering isn't much of a problem.

"We give it some thought, but if we miss by 100 cases, it's not a big deal," said Wong.

However, another retailer's experience has found that after the holiday, corned beef won't sell through easily.

"If you overorder, you have a hard time moving the item after St. Patrick's Day is gone. We'd almost rather run out than be hung with it afterwards," said White.

To promote the holiday, Kelley's starts advertising the week before and usually each store builds a display in the department.

While plans for this year are still being developed, last year's highlights included an iron pot with a rainbow leading from the pot to the ceiling, filled with corned beef and cabbage.

When asked if her company celebrates St. Patrick's Day, Jean Story, director of public relations for Felpausch Food Centers, Hastings, Mich., said, "Actually, we go crazy!"

This is the third year in a row, she said, that the 21-store chain has run a "buy the corned beef and get the vegetables free" offer. That would include the cabbage, potatoes and carrots, she said.

"In the past, we've also had display contest which is a joint effort between the meat and produce departments." She said it will probably be held again.

Additionally, she said, in-store demos for corned beef have proven very successful. It came as a surprise to us that "a lot of people don't know how to cook corned beef and have never tasted it!"

"So, by exposing it to them that way it also helps increase sales," said Story.

Starr McConnell, meat buyer for Compton's Holiday Markets, Sacramento, Calif., expects sales of corned beef to increase by "at least 10 times" normal this year.

"Of course, we promote it. We have to for the holiday. Besides," said McConnell. "I'm Irish."

However, he noted, "it is an item that we sell at cost, because that's what the competition demands." While the chain does some cross-merchandising between the meat and produce departments, said McConnell, "in-store we don't do as much decorating as I would like to, but we do use some signs. We just don't have the time to do a lot of decorating."