SWIMMING UPMARKET

Higher-ticket outdoor furnishings will be a leading trend this spring and summer for supermarket seasonal offerings.The economy is showing signs of a rebound, and consumers are more willing to consider buying upmarket goods in a supermarket setting, industry insiders told SN. As a result, retailers are moving to pricier patio furnishings and gazebos to go along with the usual spring and summer assortment

Higher-ticket outdoor furnishings will be a leading trend this spring and summer for supermarket seasonal offerings.

The economy is showing signs of a rebound, and consumers are more willing to consider buying upmarket goods in a supermarket setting, industry insiders told SN. As a result, retailers are moving to pricier patio furnishings and gazebos to go along with the usual spring and summer assortment of swim toys, charcoal, grills, and lawn and garden products.

"In the grocery business, I see a lot more upscale gazebos and some upscaling of the lawn and patio furniture vs. a year ago," said a nonfood executive with an eastern Texas supermarket chain, who asked to not be identified.

"I see customers starting to buy more of these products from us, and we are actually taking some of that business away from the mass merchandisers. In the past, they had the pricing and selection, but we're getting just as good on the pricing and variety as they are," he said.

"My theory is, if you do seasonal merchandising correctly, there shouldn't be any limit to what you can do," said Roy White, vice president, education, General Merchandise Distributors Council Educational Foundation, New York.

Supermarkets are constantly refining their approaches to selling seasonal goods, White said, noting that the report on the subject GMDC put out several years ago is still in demand, despite being out of print. "I'm guessing that this year, seasonal merchandising might very well be more successful than in years gone by because of the turnaround in the economy," he said.

One of the acknowledged supermarket leaders in seasonal is Hy-Vee, West Des Moines, Iowa. Most Hy-Vee stores have extensive garden centers during the warm weather months, said Ruth Mitchell, spokeswoman. "Every year, they continue to get larger and more sophisticated as our stores become more adept at finding products, choosing the right selection, and merchandising them outdoors in our garden centers," she said.

The chain has been gradually increasing the size of its garden centers -- and the length of time they operate -- for eight to 10 years, Mitchell said. "Our garden centers are comparable to what you might see at a home improvement store like Lowes. They include bedding plants, flowers, trees, shrubs, mulch, seeds, gardening supplies, outdoor furniture and lawn ornaments. There's anything people in this area of the country buy for setting up their gardens or lawns for spring," she said.

Hy-Vee also holds special parking-lot tent sales, where price points have ranged up to $1,498 for a television. "Each store puts their own twist on it," she said. These parking-lot events are held throughout the year, but more are held in the spring and summer because of the weather, she added.

"The tent sales continue to evolve as stores try new things to see what types of products sell and which are major draws," she said. At Hy-Vee, store-level management already has a great deal of autonomy compared to other big chains. However, the tent sales "allow our store directors to be entrepreneurs, and they continue to come up with new sources for products and new ideas for what they can sell and how they can sell it," Mitchell said.

"Spring and summer seasonal gives us the opportunity to show our customers that Hy-Vee is at the forefront of what is new, different and changing, and that there are always new things to see and buy at Hy-Vee that are in keeping with what's going on in their lives," she said.

One key to merchandising high-end outdoor furnishings is to make sure a sample of each is always assembled, said Bill Mansfield, a 30-year veteran of the supermarket nonfood industry. He has held executive positions with Harris Teeter, Tom Thumb and, most recently, Marsh. Mansfield is also the immediate past chairman of GMDC.

"If it is in the box, it won't sell nearly as well as if you've got one on display," he said. "The best way to do that is to go outside with an early season sidewalk sale, and have a Class A event. Get everything out of the box. Umbrellas up, gazebos and patio sets built for people to sit in. Staff it, and certainly include the cold drinks, grocery products and charcoal that lend themselves to this type of event. That really tells the customer you are in this business."

Once the event is over, retailers need to continue the displays inside the store, and preferably not on top of other display units like freezers. "The closer to the ground a retailer can get it, the better the sales results will be," he said. Finally, ultimate success of seasonal offerings will be determined by how well retailers move from one time frame to the next -- for example, putting in fans as the hot weather hits -- and then closing it all out in time for back-to-school, he said.

Winter weather helps determine the success of the spring selling season -- the colder and snowier, the better for warm weather sales, he said. Additionally, this year the popularity of low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets "might lead the way to a great grilling season" and sales of the related nonfood items, Mansfield said.

Another trend to watch for this year is increased summer toy sales, he said. The toy category grew strongly for supermarkets during the holiday season, and now, because of the financial difficulties of traditional toy retailers like KB Toys and FAO Schwarz, it represents a warm weather opportunity, Mansfield said.

Meanwhile, he noted that many supermarkets are losing ground in lawn and garden products to the home improvement retailers, and that resin furniture is giving way to canvas sport chairs that travel more easily to summer activities. "The good news is there is a lot of fashion and higher price points involved in these items, so retailers are going to put more dollars in the bank," he said.

Gerry Buckles, director of HBC/GM, Associated Grocers, Baton Rouge, La., said retailers serviced by his company will be selling the basics this spring and summer, which include lawn and garden chairs, inflatables, squirt guns, balls and toys. In addition, he said a children's pool with a canopy for shade will be popular this year.

Assembly of boxed items is crucial to merchandising success, he said. Retailers can also hang inflatable items from the ceiling, and take advantage of cross-merchandising opportunities to build sales. Buckles has seen the trend to upscale items in other categories, "and I would hope it will carry over to the summer goods. People are not as afraid of the high-ticket items," he said.

"Spring and summer could be bigger for supermarkets than Christmas if they play it right because most of them could go outside in front of the store," said Jeff Manning, managing partner, F&M Merchant Group, Lewisville, Texas. "There are huge opportunities, and they don't even scratch the surface with all the spring garden goods, from fertilizers to pots, and tie it in with the produce department outside."

Supermarkets could even compete effectively with the nurseries, he said. "A tree in a nursery sells for $300 or $400, but they paid $50 or $60 for it. So a supermarket can buy these trees for $50 or $60, put them out for $100, and sell the heck out of them. You can get big-ticket items. It's not an issue if you have the right item, and as long as it's a good value and you look like you are in the business. You don't go in half way," Manning said.

"Grocery is probably giving up billions of dollars per year by not going after that season, and letting other retailers take it." The upcoming season could be, he summed up, "as good as they have the [courage] to make it."