SUMMER IS UP AND RUNNING FOR SUPERMARKETS

Supermarkets are starting their summer promotions earlier in an effort to create a stronger image for outdoor-living merchandise.Seasonal selections at some chains, in fact, began shipping in March so that customers could see early store-level outdoor-living displays.General merchandise buyers surveyed by SN began building summer merchandise displays after Easter to create a solid outdoor-living category

Supermarkets are starting their summer promotions earlier in an effort to create a stronger image for outdoor-living merchandise.

Seasonal selections at some chains, in fact, began shipping in March so that customers could see early store-level outdoor-living displays.

General merchandise buyers surveyed by SN began building summer merchandise displays after Easter to create a solid outdoor-living category statement and to keep sales from going to other retailing formats.

Byrd Food Stores, Burlington, N.C., was one chain that began arranging its summer promotion items in stores in March, according to Randall King, the chain's nonfood buyer.

"We try and get the coolers, barbecue tools and grills out there as early as we can in advance of the season," said King.

Byrd has again dotted its mix with heavyweight canvas umbrellas, each retailing for $69.99. The chain is also offering park benches at the same retail price. Both items carry 45% profit margins.

"We promoted lawn furniture in past years and decided to branch off into another direction with something different this year," King explained.

Byrd's seasonal assortment includes a disposable grill with folding legs, selling for $11.99, a style "that usually outsells a lower-priced tabletop hibachi grill."

Riser Foods, Bedford Heights, Ohio, launched its summer selling season with an ad that broke April 30, two weeks earlier than last year, according to Rich Channel, director of general merchandise and health and beauty care. Running the seasonal ad early "lets customers see what we carry in our stores early enough as they begin to think about approaching warm-weather activities."

Even though seasonal displays may be up, promotion is vital in competing with discounters, Channel pointed out.

To attract better sales turns, Riser expanded its selection of commodity items like picnic coolers, grills and lawn chairs. "If you can get a larger assortment at a reasonable dollar purchase, there's a pretty good opportunity for a sale," he said.

Price points for Riser's overall seasonal mix start at $1.99 for a promotional cooler, going up to $13.99 for a lounge chair.

The big push for Carr Gottstein Foods, Anchorage, Alaska, is right after Easter when people start thinking about outdoor activities, said Gary Schloss, vice president of general merchandise.

The chain promotes the first round of outdoor barbecue grills and lawn-and-garden products when the snow starts to melt, "and after the cold months, when people have been stuck inside all winter and they're ready for these items," he said.

Carr schedules additional ads for the Memorial Day period to promote a wider seasonal mix of ice chests, camping gear, fishing supplies, bicycles and lawn chairs.

B&R Stores, Lincoln, Neb., started building outdoor-living merchandise displays in stores May 1, gradually growing the assortments in time to meet demand for the items at the Memorial Day holiday, according to Barb Zugmier, director of nonfood.

"We'll drop in 4-foot-by-4-foot pallets of plastic picnicware at 34% to 35% margins from Hartin International [Northridge, Calif.]," said Zugmier."Three- or four-piece sets of cups, divided plates and utensils will be priced at 99 cents per pack and are good items for picnics and cookouts."

B&R anticipates a strong sell-through for its promotional outdoor-living mix, "if we ever get any sunshine in Nebraska," noted Zugmier. The mix will include styrofoam coolers in three sizes priced at 99 cents to $2. "Many people like to start the season with a new cooler and throw the old one away," she added.

Harmon's City, West Valley City, Utah, kicks off its summer outdoor-living merchandise with a big promotional splash timed for the Memorial Day holiday, said Kyle Holdaway, nonfood manager.

"We'll push camping supplies more this year, with some higher price points of $69 to $79 for coolers and fishing gear," Holdaway said. "Camping is a very strong line that does well for us in items like sleeping bags and cast-iron cookware." Last year Harmon's top summer merchandise price points were about $39 to $49, he said.

Harmon's usually starts to ship outdoor items to stores after Easter but moved the date up by a few weeks because Easter came earlier this year.

Products like barbecue grills, coolers and lawn furniture will be displayed in promotional aisles and on floor and dump displays near checkstands. Newspaper ads will alert shoppers to the highlighted items.

At Copps Corp., Stevens Point, Wis., sales of outdoor and lawn products don't begin to pick up steam until later in May. "In our neck of the woods the weather is too cold for these products until about the third week of May," said Wayne Gresl, director of nonfood. In recent years, "We've found we haven't been selling the products until that time of the month," added Gresl. After then, "it gets hot and heavy [for these products] all the way into July 4th."

The Memorial Day period is when Minyard Food Stores, Coppell, Texas, launches its summer promotion program, said Dean Owens, director of general merchandise. "That's the beginning of summer, so to speak, and when we break our first ad," he said.

The selections will be cross merchandised with beverage and snack displays in stores without a seasonal aisle, while plastic tableware implements will be set up on floor stands in several price-point ranges. Minyard plans to promote the products in circulars.

Although Harps Food Stores, Springdale, Ark., times its seasonal outdoor-promotional splash for the weekend before Memorial Day, displays of new higher-end smoker grills went into store-level displays earlier in the year, said Art Bundy, director of nonfood.

"It's an item Wal-Mart doesn't carry," Bundy said. "We put them in our stores early, before the cheaper grills go on display, and we've already had some play."

In addition to the regular mix of outdoor furniture, coolers, grills, inflatables and memorial wreaths, the chain is featuring smoker grills priced around $50 to $180 at 30 stores.

The heavy-gauge metal or cast-iron grills carry a 20% profit margin and will be cross-merchandised with barbecue tools near fresh-meat refrigerated display cases at larger stores.