SUMMER '99 LOOKS STRONG FOR RETAILERS AROUND U.S.

The summer of '99 got off to a generally strong start, according to an SN survey of supermarkets around the country.The most popular sales items tended to be the traditional seasonal fare and accoutrements -- picnic foods, meats for grilling, charcoal briquettes -- with a few regional variations, including fresh Pacific salmon in Minnesota and survivalist gear in Utah.The exception to this essentially

The summer of '99 got off to a generally strong start, according to an SN survey of supermarkets around the country.

The most popular sales items tended to be the traditional seasonal fare and accoutrements -- picnic foods, meats for grilling, charcoal briquettes -- with a few regional variations, including fresh Pacific salmon in Minnesota and survivalist gear in Utah.

The exception to this essentially sunny picture is the Northeast. There, both consumers and retailers have suffered the effects of an overdose of sunshine in the form of late June and early July's blistering heat wave. Temperatures in the 100-degree range have kept shoppers out of stores and even caused power outages that closed supermarkets and ruined merchandise.

"The last few days have been lousy," said Joseph Azzolina, president of Food Circus Supermarkets, Middletown, N.J., late last week. "We had a major store that was closed for four hours because of a power outage. Then we couldn't open on time the next day, because we were busy throwing out all the meat and the dairy."

At Lund Food Holdings, Edina, Minn., sales this summer are considerably ahead of last year's, and the weather is largely responsible -- last summer's severe weather, that is. "Last June, seven of our 19 stores were closed by windstorms," said Russell (Tres) Lund 3rd, president and chief executive officer of the chain. "This June was considerably stronger than last."

Lund said typical picnic and backyard-barbecue foods are selling well. Somewhat less usual, he added, was the chain's recently concluded, successful promotion of Copper River salmon flown in fresh from the Pacific Northwest.

In Iowa, the weather wasn't so bad last summer, but it wasn't being particularly cooperative this June, according to Ruth Mitchell, assistant vice president of communications at Hy-Vee, West Des Moines, Iowa. But a spate of cold and wet weekends hasn't dampened shoppers' appetite, she said. "Sales are strong, especially considering the weather we've had here," Mitchell said.

Hy-Vee is doing a range of market-specific promotions, according to Mitchell. In Des Moines, the chain is celebrating its 40th year in the Iowa capital. In Kansas City, Mo., it is observing the opening of its 20th store. And in Omaha, Neb., a promotion is focused on helping that city's Henry Doorly Zoo import some endangered white rhinoceroses.

"In all our bigger markets, stores are doing entrepreneurial things that are getting them a lot of notice," said Mitchell.

In east Texas, weather hasn't been an issue this summer, according to Kevin Doris, president of Gerland's Food Fair, Houston. "Sales are basically the same as last year," he said. "We're meeting our projections. We're extremely pleased with the way our summer has been working out."

The chain, he added, "is focused on improving sales per transaction." Products the stores are promoting include produce, especially such seasonal fruits as peaches, plums and nectarines, he said.

These promotions are not particularly flashy, according to Doris. "We're just making sure we have typical summertime items clearly displayed, well-signed and at the best price we can pass on to the consumer," he said.

From the West Coast, the news is good, according to Jack Brown, chairman, president and CEO of Stater Bros. Markets, Colton, Calif. "Sales were up going into the Fourth of July weekend. Our stores have been jammed, and we expect record sales for the week," he said.

The items the chain has promoted most successfully this summer, according to Brown, are extra-long hot dogs and expanded buns. "We have promoted them hard, and they have really caught on fire," he said. "It's just one item, but this business is built on single-item sales."

Brown also said that he is optimistic about the next few months. "Looking ahead to the rest of the summer, the acquisition of 43 stores from Albertson's will play a strong part," he said.

Meanwhile, a Utah chain attributed its recent sales surge to concern about the imminent arrival of the millennium. Kenneth W. Macey, president and CEO of Macey's, Sandy, Utah, said sales were up 15% for the last few weeks, but that hardly compared with what the company experienced at the beginning of the year.

"We got a tremendous flurry," he said. "There was a Y2K frenzy. People were buying all kinds of survival preparedness items -- food-storage items, water-storage items, light sources, candles. Our first quarter set records."

The frenzy may have died down a bit, but Brown said he did not think it was entirely over. In July, when the chain holds its annual case-lot sales, Brown said he expected canned fruits and vegetables to sell particularly well. "We also have a couple of semis stocked with generators," he added. "We believe they'll move quickly."