The back-to-school season is a good time for retailers to practice thinking outside the box, especially when it comes to merchandising Center Store products. Those who are successful will reap the benefit of both immediate and incremental sales, according to industry analysts and grocery merchandisers.When students are packing their book bags to head back to class, supermarket specials and advertising

The back-to-school season is a good time for retailers to practice thinking outside the box, especially when it comes to merchandising Center Store products. Those who are successful will reap the benefit of both immediate and incremental sales, according to industry analysts and grocery merchandisers.

When students are packing their book bags to head back to class, supermarket specials and advertising should be extended to include paper products and notebooks, lunch bags, and even lamps and popcorn poppers, according to retailers and others interviewed by SN.

"A good store manager will check prices at the local office stores and Wal-Mart and Kmart and stock school products at competitive prices," said Steve Love, national partner for the food industry at Senn-Delaney, a unit of Arthur Andersen, Chicago. "Supermarkets have to make a wide variety of products available. If a supermarket is going to be the back-to-school center for the area, [merchandising] has to be done in a big way.

"The higher sales and higher margin stores do that proactively," he explained. "The store could find out from local schools what supplies are required, for example, and not only stock the supplies, but have a checklist posted in the aisle to help parents see what their children need.

"You can tie in candy as a treat and augment this with other lunch items. A whole aisle or wall can be devoted to a theme such as Pokeman, WWF or some music group that appeals to kids. The best practice is to get the displays up early and in prominent locations," said Love.

H.G. Hill Stores, based in Nashville, Tenn., has built upon this idea by stocking stores with school supplies and lunchbox items and then making customers and potential customers a free offer to get them into the store, said Ashley Caldwell, spokeswoman for the chain.

"School starts in mid-August here, and this year we offered people a coupon good for a free box of cornflakes between Aug. 9 and Aug. 15, and a coupon good for a free 12-ounce package of bacon between Aug. 16 and Aug. 22. This is the first time we have done that, and the local news media even picked up on it and did stories on it," she said.

"We wanted to reach new customers and give a little something to current customers," Caldwell continued. "Then, when we get them into the store, we cross merchandise school supplies and lunch items and even breakfast items. Everything is located together in several places throughout the store, including anything that helps them wake up and get started the first few days of school."

H.G. Hill also offered special prices for school items, along with free coupons that were part of a mailer that went out to 250,000 people. To keep interest going into October, H.G. Hill sponsors a coloring contest during that month, Caldwell said.

Some areas of the country are moving to year-round schooling, but that does not prevent supermarkets and other stores from concentrating back-to-school advertising and specials during the late summer and early fall time period, commented Greg Whitney, marketing director for Nickel's Payless and Food 4 Less stores, headquartered in Visalia, Calif.

"This is the way people think; they use this time period to stock up on school items," Whitney said. "Department stores are promoting back to school at this time, so we do, too.

"We bring in a lot of things we do not normally carry -- like binders -- and we definitely have more quantity of things like paper. From mid-August to early September, we cross merchandise these with snack foods and convenience foods in single-serve packages that are easy to pack for lunches. It is like a holiday theme that you would do at different times of the year," he continued.

"We have lobby displays and in-aisle displays where we'll put pencils and paper, single-serve snacks and beverages and lunch pails together," Whitney said.

Since Food 4 Less is a warehouse store, it uses less advertising and runs fewer specials, but pallets of related items will be placed near each other, Whitney said.

Just as they do for holidays, managers use back-to-school as a motif to decorate the store, and as a theme for in-store advertising.

"We use mobiles of apples and other school-related products to decorate the store, and we put up displays of school items. The whole store is decorated on a theme of back-to-school," said Pat Childress, assistant manager of Dahl's Food Markets in West Des Moines, Iowa, a suburban area with many families with school children. "We had these things up for the last two weeks of August and the first week of September. Then we move on to Halloween decorations."

Dahl's does not have back-to-school coupons, but tries to have prices competitive with Kmart and other stores that carry school supplies.

"We will use the in-aisle displays supplied by manufacturers like Nabisco, Keebler and Frito-Lay, and do some of our own," Childress added. "We do cross-merchandising displays of snacks, lunch boxes, drink boxes, paper, and lunch sacks and tie it all together. I'd say one-third of the displays and decorations in the store are back-to-school related at this time of year. We even consider things like cookies and brownie mixes back-to-school items and use them in displays."

Brookshire Grocery Co. undertook its most aggressive back-to-school advertising campaign this year and the results, so far, have been very positive, with sales at record levels, said Ellen Reynolds, spokeswoman for the Tyler, Texas, company.

The leading edge of the advertising was in fliers inserted in local newspapers or mailed to homes with back-to-school specials or designs on every page, she said. In addition, three endcap displays in high traffic areas of the stores were used for lunch items, including items like peanut butter and jelly. The displays were used for cross-merchandising tie-ins to drink envelopes, and lunch and sandwich bags.

The campaign was topped off with special sales on nonfood items like notebooks, paper, pencils and glue, Reynolds said.

Some Safeway stores in Washington state supplemented an eight-page flier with a four-page pullout of back-to-school specials labeled "Smart Savings." The pullout included special prices for Safeway Club Card holders on paper, pencils, markers, cookies, candy, calculators, lunch bags, crayons, and even batteries and film.

Still other supermarkets take into account local needs and stock stores and plan specials accordingly. Big Y Foods stores, headquartered in Springfield, Mass., cater to local colleges and universities located near some of its units. An extra pullout sheet, similar to the Safeway advertisement, is aimed directly at college students.

"People here are going back into dorms, so we not only have traditional school items, we also have specials on lamps, can openers, toasters, electric coffeemakers, clock radios, pillows and blankets, tropical plants and popcorn poppers. We tie those promotions in with food," said John Schnepp, director of advertising.

"We stock the stores with special items that we wouldn't carry any other time of year, because we are trying to get people new to the area into the store to get them familiar with us. We also send out fliers to people who live here," he said.

"We have a big banner outside the store and another inside welcoming students back," he added. "We advertise for a couple of weeks in the campus newspapers, promoting foods to go. Each student gets a goodie bag from a welcoming group, and we put an offer for a free frozen pizza or something like that in there and an application for an express shopping card to encourage students to shop here."