TAKEOUT,GAMBLING HURT STORES DOWN UNDER

SYDNEY, Australia (FNS) -- Australia's supermarket chains are being adversely affected by the growing popularity of takeout food and poker machines, according to a new survey. ary and March in eastern Australia.Although most retailers experienced fair Christmas trading and excellent January sales, there was a downturn in February -- a month known for low spending because of back-to-school expenses,

SYDNEY, Australia (FNS) -- Australia's supermarket chains are being adversely affected by the growing popularity of takeout food and poker machines, according to a new survey.

ary and March in eastern Australia.

Although most retailers experienced fair Christmas trading and excellent January sales, there was a downturn in February -- a month known for low spending because of back-to-school expenses, payment of Christmas credit-card debts and other financial obligations.

The survey sees the outlook as only "fair," with the May budget looming and a seeming lack of confidence in the federal government's ability to show signs of mature leadership and create a vision of business.

With Easter behind them, retailers now have Mother's Day to look forward to before they "settle down to the cheerless trading months of midwinter, and consumer confidence is reported as still not high," the survey said.

Gambling, particularly in Victoria, was seen by almost all retailers as a social phenomenon that was having an effect on retail business in Australia. Retailers said disposable income was "definitely" affected by poker machines.

In addition, the supermarkets' share of stomach was seriously affected by increased competition from food-service providers. However, respondents unanimously agreed that supermarkets were meeting the competition head-on.

Most are developing their own prepared and take-home semiprepared meals and installing delis, steam tables and rotisseries. Prepared-meal items such as pizzas, pies, quiches, lasagnas, seafood and cooked chicken, pork, lamb and beef as well as recipe ideas are now being offered by supermarkets.

As a result, the fresh and deli areas in supermarkets are reporting significant growth. Trading for the first six months of 1997 was expected to be particularly difficult. However, most supermarkets have reported favorable trading conditions over the crucial Christmas holiday season, negating predictions to the contrary.

The survey found that the fresh-food area was overwhelmingly "nominated as the fastest area of growth, with increases of up to 5% on last year."

Other big winners were pet foods, soft drinks, confectionery and health and beauty aids.

Several grocery lines were forecast to decline, including frozen food, cigarettes, canned vegetables, cooking needs, poultry, tea, coffee, biscuits and soap powders.

Retailers who responded to the survey said manufacturers had to be more innovative if they wanted to meet today's lifestyles and the needs of the time-poor consumer.

They also saw a need for more new products and packaging, which were still considered the lifeblood of the industry, along with more innovative marketing and promotional ideas.