AUSTIN, Texas -- As the picnic season gets in gear, supermarkets in the Austin area are using different merchandising strategies to sell paper products. Co., San Antonio, which handles accounts for H.E. Butt Grocery Co., headquartered in the same city."There's a considerable spike in premium plates and paper products during the holiday period, but total volume, overall, during the summer months is

AUSTIN, Texas -- As the picnic season gets in gear, supermarkets in the Austin area are using different merchandising strategies to sell paper products.

Co., San Antonio, which handles accounts for H.E. Butt Grocery Co., headquartered in the same city.

"There's a considerable spike in premium plates and paper products during the holiday period, but total volume, overall, during the summer months is higher, because you're selling both premium and lower-end products," he said.

H-E-B promotes paper plates or cups "virtually every other Wednesday in ad features, if not every week," according to Melgaard.

SN compared the paper goods departments at three major chains in the Austin area: H-E-B; Randalls Food Markets, based in Houston; and Whole Foods Market, here. All three differed dramatically in layout, selection and organization, although the prices at all three were comparable.

At H-E-B's large store at Braker Lane and Highway 183, all paper products are grouped together. The paper-goods section is located in an aisle that runs along the back of the store, across from the toilet paper, towels and tissues. The section is difficult to find, since the aisle marker can't be seen from the front of the store. But the wide 75-foot aisle is stocked with a variety of paper products. Plates, napkins and cups are located near the front.

The section has 16 feet of paper and plastic plates, with one shelf dedicated to plastic eating utensils. Nine feet are dedicated to Styrofoam and paper cups. Another 12 feet, with four shelves, are dedicated to paper napkins and tablecloths.

A large variety of napkin and paper brands -- including Hefty, Dixie, Chinet, Mardi Gras, Sparkle, Zee, Vanity Fair and Scott -- are carried. The store offers an assortment of sizes, from 60- to 360-count packs of napkins. Plates are available in 6-, 8- and 10-inch sizes. Cups are available in a variety of sizes in Styrofoam, paper and plastic.

Several feet of shelf space are dedicated to H-E-B's Hill Country Fare and H-E-B private-label brands of paper goods, which are value priced. Hill Country Fare 300-count, 8-inch paper plates are $4.99; Hill Country Fare 500-count napkins are $2.59; and H-E-B 250-count napkins are $1.59.

Big Cool Styrofoam cups sell at 95 cents for 20. Styro [Styrofoam] cups sell for 78 cents for 51 cups. The store previously sold a lower-priced generic brand, but H-E-B has stopped stocking generics. The chain plans to come out with an H-E-B line of value-priced Styrofoam cups, plates and napkins that will be comparable to previous generics, according to a store-level source.

"Costs You Less" signs point out the better deals. In addition to standard white napkins and plates, the section has several feet of Linette paper products, which are aimed at the party crowd. They come in a variety of bright colors, including red, blue and teal.

During SN's visit, cross-promotions for picnics or barbecues were not done in aisle, but paper products were tied together in a recent ad, which promoted 25-count Dixie plates (two for $3), a 24-pack of Forster plastic cutlery (79 cents) and a 120-count bag of Mardi Gras decorator napkins for 79 cents, along with garbage and food bags, plastic wrap and Dixie bathroom cups.

On the other hand, H-E-B misses a cross-merchandising opportunity a few aisles away in an section stocked with ice chests, charcoal, bug sprays, rubber rafts and squirt guns. A small amount of shelf space is dedicated to plastic cups and plates, but there are no utensils or napkins.

Nonetheless, Melgaard of Christal Co. noted that he has seen H-E-B cross merchandise paper goods, from time to time, in its meal-solutions area.

A new Randalls store across the street takes a totally different approach to merchandising, focusing on picnics and barbecues, for which consumers need paper goods, rather than trying to create a paper-goods section.

Hot dog and hamburger buns and bread are located across the aisle from paper goods. The first third of the four-shelf aisle is dedicated to charcoal, matches and sterno.

The paper section starts about halfway down, taking up 30 feet of the aisle and ending with the tissue section. The section is attractive, well laid out and easy to find, with a wide variety of paper plates and napkins in several package sizes.

The one-year-old store emphasizes presentation, which is evident in the way the aisle is set up. The store has approximately 20 stockkeeping units of napkins, merchandised on six shelves. In addition to Mardi Gras, Top Crest, Vanity Fair, Zee, Northern and Scott brands, the store stocks the Green Mark brand made with recycled paper.

Thirteen feet of shelf space are dedicated to Dixie, Top Crest, Chinet, Hefty and Solo paper plates. There is also a large selection of three styles of the Dixie line, with bowls and three sizes of plates. The Chinet selection is also broad, and includes a platter and several sizes of bowls and plates.

The Valu Time plates were the most economical, at $2.99 for a 150-count pack of 9-inch plates and $1.99 for the 100-count 6-inch plates.

The store has a good variety of plastic, paper and Styrofoam cups, in a number of quantities. There were 25 SKUs alone for plastic cups.

The section stocks 3 feet of Sensations, an upscale line of party products available in eight colors, with matching plates, napkins, utensils and tablecloths. On the top shelf were plastic champagne glasses.

A relatively small amount of space is dedicated to the Randalls Top Crest line, with more play being given to name brands. The outdoor emphasis is carried out all the way down the aisle, with film, bowl covers and other picnic items hanging from clip strips.

A display of outdoor survival kits sits at the beginning of the aisle, while an endcap at the front uses a patriotic theme (equally relevant for Memorial or Independence Day). Red, white and blue plates by Hefty (two for $3 with the Remarkable card) are displayed along with hot dog relish, buns and soft drinks.

Large "Compare and Save" signs lead customers to the best buys. Randalls had several items on special promotion -- tied to its "Remarkable" loyal-shopper card. These included a 250-count package of Mardi Gras napkins, which were two for $3.

At the newly renovated Randalls on Lake Austin Boulevard in central Austin, the paper products are at the beginning of an aisle stocked with charcoal, matches and other outdoor products. But rather than sitting across from the bread, the napkins, plates and cups face other paper products, such as paper towels and toilet paper.

The Whole Foods Market on Research Boulevard has the smallest paper-product selection of any store in the area. Nonetheless, the fact that it sells paper products at all is a testament to the chain's strategy to offer a wider variety to customers.

The products are located in an aisle in the back of the store, across from the pet supplies and bottled water and alongside the natural and organic cleaning products. The paper products occupy roughly 8 feet of the 20-foot section.

The aisle is adjacent to the dairy section at the back of the store. A large wooden sign overhead makes it easy to find the section, although many people may not think to look for paper products at Whole Foods, which in the past had few items in this category.

A sign in the section advertises "animal and earth-friendly cleaning products." The store sells only two brands of paper napkins: Second Nature recycled paper napkins and the chain's "365" value line.

This store had no cups or utensils. Some cross merchandising is done by locating the Second Nature, Seventh Generation and Chinet paper plates with charcoal, matches, straws and Ziploc bags.