SHOPPING CART PUTS PUMPKIN SALE IN GEAR FOR FESTIVAL

ONALASKA, Wis. -- Festival Foods here pushed pumpkin sales to a record high this year at its annual one-day Pumpkin Blowout and officials give some of the credit to a giant shopping cart with a Chevrolet engine.The company sold 4,079 pumpkins in the parking lot of its flagship store here on the day of the Blowout. That compares with 3,000 last year. A combination of factors revved sales up over expectations,

ONALASKA, Wis. -- Festival Foods here pushed pumpkin sales to a record high this year at its annual one-day Pumpkin Blowout and officials give some of the credit to a giant shopping cart with a Chevrolet engine.

The company sold 4,079 pumpkins in the parking lot of its flagship store here on the day of the Blowout. That compares with 3,000 last year. A combination of factors revved sales up over expectations, said David Skogen, president and owner of the company, which operates four supermarkets under the Festival Foods banner and two as Skogen's IGA Stores.

"We added a little more pizazz this year. We had the remote [broadcast] and we moved the sale to a better location in the parking lot where people could see everything as they drove by. It was a beautiful day, 65 degrees and the sun was bright. And then we had the big cart out there. It's the first year we had that," Skogen said.

He referred to a novelty shopping cart, leased from National Cart Co., St. Charles, Mo., that stands a little more than 13 feet high and is 15 feet long. It's propelled by a 500-hp Chevrolet engine and already has tallied up mileage on Wisconsin turf. Since it arrived at Skogen's Sept. 15, the cart -- bedecked with Festival Foods banners -- was a major attraction in two parades at nearby LaCrosse's October Fest.

And, as expected, it was also a strong draw in Festival's parking lot at the pumpkin sale last month.

"Every once in a while, we'd jump up there and rev up the engine. People just loved that. Some said it gave them goose bumps. It sounds like a NASCAR. People were snapping pictures of it and said they'd like to take a ride in it," Skogen said.

And he said he's certain it helped sell more pumpkins and get more people into the store. "But we have also sold more each year for the eight years we've been doing this."

He explained that the pumpkins he sells are special because they are raised exclusively for his stores on a nearby farm. "They clean them and they're all good quality and a consistent size. People have come to know that they'll get a good pumpkin here," he said.

He buys them for $1 each and sells them for $1 each. "While we don't make any money on them, it's worth it to attract so many people to our stores. And it's fun. We want to make shopping enjoyable," Skogen said.

"If you sell pumpkins for a buck, people will buy multiples. I'd say that 75% of the people on Saturday bought at least three of them. Some were loading up 10 or 15. In fact, we were thinking of setting a limit per customer because we were afraid we would run out. We also sold a couple hundred bales of hay that day at $2 each," he added.

During the rest of the season, Festival Foods and Skogen's IGAs sell pumpkins for $1.50 each, which is the usual retail in this part of the country, Skogen said.

The three other Festival units, two of which are in Green Bay, Wis., sold 3,000 pumpkins on Blowout day, and the IGAs, which are smaller, sold several hundred. Most customers were buying both the pumpkins and the hay to decorate their front lawns, said Skogen, adding that people here are making a much bigger holiday of Halloween than they did in the past.

"Electronically, it's amazing what they're doing. There are orange lights all over the place. It's like a mini Christmas." And all that holiday festivity makes for bigger sales each year at his stores, particularly in the bakery and produce departments, he said.

"For example, people really look forward to the pumpkin sale. We ran an ad in the LaCrosse paper. And then, here at the flagship store, we had a remote radio broadcast from the top of the cart. We have had remotes before, but this time it was from the cart," Skogen said. He said teaser ads on the local radio station alerted people about the Pumpkin Blowout and revealed that the giant cart would be there.

Skogen said the cart will figure into future sales and promotions. "It attracts so much attention -- much more than we had thought it would. People tell us we should have a drawing for rides on it. It will hold three people, but I hadn't thought about people actually wanting to get in it."

Since people like it so much, Skogen sees it as a particular plus that he has the only one in his region of the country. Indeed, there are only six others in existence and one of them is being leased by a supermarket in Puerto Rico, and one is at a Wal-Mart in Canada. Among lessees in the United States is Schnuck Markets, St. Louis. It has had one of the carts for the last 15 years, said Robert Unnerstall, chief executive officer at National Cart Co., which is primarily a materials-handling equipment manufacturer.