STRONG HOLIDAY MEAT SALES EXPECTED

Supermarket meat executives are predicting brisk sales for Christmas.That is, if strong Thanksgiving sales can be used as any indication."I am expecting record sales for this Christmas," said R.J. Harvey, meat buyer at Ingles Markets, Black Mountain, N.C., a 175-store chain. He said November sales were "very good."While already a traditional favorite, hams are expected to take the lead as the key

Supermarket meat executives are predicting brisk sales for Christmas.

That is, if strong Thanksgiving sales can be used as any indication.

"I am expecting record sales for this Christmas," said R.J. Harvey, meat buyer at Ingles Markets, Black Mountain, N.C., a 175-store chain. He said November sales were "very good."

While already a traditional favorite, hams are expected to take the lead as the key featured item for most retailers this year. Increased pork production has forced down prices over the past few months, and that trend is expected to continue into next year, according to Joe Leathers, director of merchandising at National Pork Producers Council, Des Moines, Iowa.

Turkeys are expected to be second.

But as with pork, a record cattle production could make beef a much stronger player for Christmas, according to retailers polled by SN.

Clemens Markets, Kulpsville, Pa., is offering a beef gift pack this year for the first time, said Al Kober, buyer-merchandiser for meat, seafood and deli at the 14-store company.

It features a choice of three different steak cuts -- tenderloin, strip or club -- along with a bottle of A-1 steak sauce. The steaks are packaged in the gift boxes the chain uses for its party trays, said Kober. "You would feel comfortable giving it as a housewarming gift. It has a lid on top with a window." Still, the heavy emphasis will be on hams, said Kober. The company offers 40 varieties and all will be at a feature price.

He said pork prices are much more reasonable this year than last. "I have a boneless ham out for a $1.84, which last year was $2.39."

"I categorize all the hams and then I put them in a half-price sale, or a 40%-off sale or a 30%-off sale," said Kober, who is optimistic about making a good profit this year.

He said meat department sales and profits this Thanksgiving were "probably the best I've seen in 10 years. And I expect Christmas to be just as good." He said having the right product and price mix is the key.

Ken Gracey, meat manager at United Supermarkets, a 24-unit chain based in Altus, Okla., said he too will be featuring beef this year for Christmas.

"The main thing is that we will promote more beef in our ads this Christmas, other than that it will stay about the same [as previous years]," said Gracey.

What does he predict? "More hams. Less turkeys than at Thanksgiving. And then beef would be the third."

He said he expects sales to "be as good or better than last year."

Harvey of Ingles also expected to see beef on this year's menu.

"Some people during the holidays don't want a ham or a turkey. And we have beef to offer them," he said.

He said over the past few months due the lower prices, "beef sales have been excellent."

Gerald Swanda, meat and deli director at Holiday Cos., Minneapolis, said his company plans to focus more on beef than on ham this year. But that, he added, it is not unusual for his company, which operates 27 supermarkets and some 200 convenience stores.

"It is not a first for us. It's worked very well in the past."

George Baker, director meat operations at Nash Finch Co., Minneapolis, operator of 92 supermarkets and 16 distribution centers, said there could be some "lowball" pricing on turkeys for Christmas because there were some leftovers from Thanksgiving. He also expects to see some very aggressive pricing on hams. The Minneapolis market had an unusually profitable season for its Thanksgiving turkeys, according to several area retailers. Unlike the loss leader role turkeys played in most other markets around the country, the twin city area, most turkeys sold at or above cost.

At Rainbow Foods, Hopkins, Minn., some beef rib roast and rump roasts will be features, but the focus will be on hams, said Tom Scheirer, director meat and seafood operations, for the 33-unit company.

And "we don't advertise turkeys at all for Christmas," said Scheirer. "We and everybody in town will be doing hams."