THANKSGIVING MEAL SALES HOTTER THAN LAST YEAR'S

Sales of prepared Thanksgiving dinners continued to grow this year thanks to more pointed advertising with new spots on the front page of ad circulars, better customer recognition of the programs and competitive prices. That is according to a spot check of retailers in different markets last week just following the Thanksgiving holiday weekend."We added more dinner varieties this year and got our

Sales of prepared Thanksgiving dinners continued to grow this year thanks to more pointed advertising with new spots on the front page of ad circulars, better customer recognition of the programs and competitive prices. That is according to a spot check of retailers in different markets last week just following the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

"We added more dinner varieties this year and got our ad on the front page of the circular, nearly a third of that page," said Phillip Grasso, vice president of deli and food-service operations for 178-unit Ingles Markets, Black Mountain, N.C. Before this year, dinners had been listed in the regular deli ad, which was no more than a quarter page in the back of the circular.

Ingles sold 18,000 dinners this year, compared with 10,000 last year. "We added a smoked turkey dinner and a dinner that features three whole roasted chickens with side dishes. With our spiral ham and regular turkey dinner and turkey breast dinner, it creates a nice menu to choose from," Grasso said.

"And a new brochure that features a photo of a turkey on its cover helped. We used it as a bag-stuffer," Grasso said.

At $22.95, Ingles' turkey dinner price also was very competitive, he said. "The only supermarket in the area with a turkey dinner lower than that didn't tell in its ad what came with the dinner, and we did."

At Clemens Markets, Lansdale, Pa., an increase of at least 60% over last year can be attributed mostly to word of mouth advertising, said Thomas Hughes, marketing and advertising director for the 14-unit retailer. But the company also listed the meals for the first time on the front page of its circular, and offered some giveaway meals on a call-in radio show. "The major reason for the increase though is that this is the second year of the program. We established the quality last year and it was remembered," Hughes said, adding that there was much repeat business.

Some chains hadn't yet compiled figures from all their stores by Monday. Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., for example, was still awaiting some tallies. A chain official, however, said, "Sales appear to be good, up from last Thanksgiving."

Harvest Foods, Little Rock, Ark., also reported that sales news was good.

"I'd venture to say that we had a 99% sell-through," said Kathy McDade, deli merchandising director for the 54-unit chain. "We're up an estimated 12% from last year, and I'd have been happy with a 7% or 8% increase." She said that a very competitive price, $19.95, beat others in all Harvest's markets. "And this year, we added a free, 8-inch pumpkin pie; that gave us an extra edge." Front page space in its ad circular also served Harvest well, McDade said. "Last year was the first time on the front, and our dinner sales went up 27% over the previous year. So we did it again."

While most people think turkey at Thanksgiving, Harvest's ham dinner sales alone were up 5% this year. McDade attributes that to using a brand name ham. In addition, she lowered the price by $5. "But we made just as much on it, because we bought well," she said. The ham is boneless, but not spiral cut. "If you start using spiral cut hams, you can't stay competitive with price," McDade said. Harvest's ham dinner was $24.95.

A deli executive at a Midwest chain said he's probably going to add a ham dinner for Thanksgiving next year. "I was amazed at the hams our meat department sold Thanksgiving week," he said. On turkey dinner sales, he said, "some of our stores are way up in sales, but others are down. We'll be trying to figure out why those stores had fewer sales," he said. With totals in from only a few stores, Randalls Food Markets, Houston, was projecting a total 5% to 10% increase over last year. "But we don't have the figures from Austin yet," said Steve Fraley, director of food-service merchandising, for the 70-unit chain.

The chain advertised its turkey and ham dinners on the sides of its grocery bags for the first time this year, and also upscaled its ham dinner, Fraley said.

Individual, roasted turkeys, rather than whole meals, were hot at Frank's Family Foods, Winfield, Ill. "For the first time, we featured hot, whole turkeys alone for $1.99 a pound in our main advertising," said Paul Salerno, deli-catering director of operations for the four-unit independent.

As a result, sales of those individual birds were up 30% to 40%, while dinner sales remained about the same as last year, he said. "I think the individual turkeys were popular because a lot of people want to make their own stuffing and do their own thing with vegetable dishes," Salerno said. "We've usually sold the turkeys and the dinners cold, with reheating instructions, but more people wanted them hot this year," he added.

Larger retailers, however, who source their meal components from outside, have told SN that it's necessary for them to limit the heating of dinners. It's the only way, they say, they can control production and assembly.