THANKSGIVING VOLUME STAYS STRONG

Retailers reported strong produce sales this Thanksgiving, despite some increased prices caused by cold weather in California and Tropical Storm Gordon in Florida. Retailers said customers still went for traditional holiday items, but one reported an increase in sales of precut carrots and two of those interviewed by SN last week reported a dip in cranberry sales.A spokesman for Raley's, West Sacramento,

Retailers reported strong produce sales this Thanksgiving, despite some increased prices caused by cold weather in California and Tropical Storm Gordon in Florida. Retailers said customers still went for traditional holiday items, but one reported an increase in sales of precut carrots and two of those interviewed by SN last week reported a dip in cranberry sales.

A spokesman for Raley's, West Sacramento, Calif., said dollar sales for produce were up overall from last year, but those figures may have been inflated by higher prices.

Potatoes, yams and lettuce were strong items, he said. "Nothing really changes for Thanksgiving," he said. "It's hard to break those traditions."

Don Bergen, produce supervisor for Tidyman's, Greenacres, Wash., said shoppers were well informed about supply shortages in California and Florida, and understood why there were price increases. "They didn't think we were trying to gouge them," he said.

One wholesaler, Frank Gillespie, corporate produce director for Roundy's, Pewaukee, Wis., said high prices hurt sales.

"High prices caused some customers to change their buying habits," Gillespie said. "Some went to frozen vegetables."

Gillespie said he did see an increase in value-added produce sales this year. Baby peeled carrots moved 40% more than expected, probably because people substituted those for green beans, which were in short supply, he said.

Promotions helped other retailers weather the holiday. Jack Lanners, director of fruits and vegetables for Glen's Markets, Gaylord, Mich., attributed a 9% increase in sales to more competitive pricing. Glen's featured three pounds of sweet potatoes for $1 and celery for 48 cents a bunch, he said. "We were featuring a lot more nuts, including meat nuts, shell nuts and pistachios," he said. "They gave us a great boost."

Featuring fruit at 10 for $1 drew customers to Harp's Food Stores, said Vince Terry, director of produce operations for the Springdale, Ark.-based chain. The response was excellent to the promotion, which included navel oranges, red delicious apples, tangelos and grapefruit. Monty Poulin, produce buyer for Plumb's, Muskegon, Mich., said his ads drove sales. Plumb's took a loss on some items, like a 10-pound bag of potatoes for 99 cents, he said. "Sometimes, you've got to do that," he said.

An improved economy helped boost sales nearly 5% at Rice Food Markets, Houston, according to Hugh Williams, vice president and director of produce and floral operations.

Tom Murray, director of produce for Roche Bros. Supermarkets in Wellesley Hills, Mass., said Tropical Storm Gordon caused shortages of some items. "Green beans are usually a big seller, and we didn't have those," he said. "Broccoli was expensive."

Murray said squash, celery and cranberries did well, though, and called sales "excellent."

Most retailers said they had ordered enough, so they weren't caught by surprise by Gordon and California's cold weather.

Plumb's Poulin said he had enough produce to cover his ad items, although he expects a shortage for the next few weeks.

Harp's Terry agreed. "We had no problem with supply, since we ordered early," he said. "If I had to run some of those items, like bell peppers, under ad prices this week, I'd probably commit suicide," he joked.