TRAY CHIC

As the season for graduations and weddings gathers speed, the party tray business is booming, said retailers interviewed by SN.For supermarket party platters, however, the real trick to success is not getting into the party; it's how far you'll go to please the host and the guests.In markets that are now often saturated with available tray services for graduations, confirmations, weddings and other

As the season for graduations and weddings gathers speed, the party tray business is booming, said retailers interviewed by SN.

For supermarket party platters, however, the real trick to success is not getting into the party; it's how far you'll go to please the host and the guests.

In markets that are now often saturated with available tray services for graduations, confirmations, weddings and other springtime entertaining events, the retailers that stand out and get repeat business are putting aside the standard orders and giving consumers customized service. Several industry experts attested to that.

"Retailers who know what their customers want, and who invest the time into their deli people to train them and try new things, come out on top," said Al Broene, manager of deli purchasing at Roundy's Muskegon,

Mich. division.

"Doing different items keeps us on the cutting edge and differentiates us from the competition," said Liz Little, president of V. Richards Gourmet Grocery Store, Brookfield, Wis. "Custom orders are the bulk of our orders."

"To boost our business, we concentrate on doing specialty things that other operators won't do," said Bev McKinney, catering director, Jungle Jim, Fairfield, Ohio. "We concentrate on special orders and custom-made trays, even though we have an extensive price sheet for standard-style items. It may be labor intensive, but the payoff in repeat sales is there."

Though the party platter market is gradually becoming less seasonal, the labor challenge can become particularly fierce at this time of year, deli executives added.

"Graduations do add big-time to party tray business," said Broene. "There is definitely a push this time of year."

Ron Hirt, director of appetizing at Inserra ShopRite, Mahwah, N.J., agreed. "We are in the catering business 365 days a year," said Ron Hirt, director of appetizing at Inserra ShopRite, Mahwah, N.J. "Still, the graduation, communion and confirmation season strengthens our business."

Harris Teeter, Charlotte, N.C., has to stay in shape for party tray business year-round, according to Ruth Kinsey, director of communications. Consumers may be entertaining at home more often -- but they are not making their own platters.

"Customers like the convenience of deli platters. In this time-crunched environment, they simply don't have the time to put together all the elements for entertaining. At party time in particular, the convenience that we offer is appreciated and utilized," Kinsey said.

Even the standard trays that some successful retailers assemble are offered with a flair.

"How the tray is garnished depends on how good the business will be," said Broene.

Jungle Jim recently filled one order for a customer that wanted an antipasto selection from the retailer's olive bar, said McKinney. The deli department placed the items in individual containers into a basket, along with packing and garnishes.

"She has ordered this several times, and so have her guests," said McKinney. "Repeat business and business from people who see your work is what it is all about."

V. Richards' Littles said the store is having a busy year for party tray orders. The service is attached to the catering department, and doubles as a marketing vehicle for pickup for incremental business on a more elaborate scale.

"Besides simply selling party trays, we use these items as a selling tool for our catering department to increase sales and boost orders," Little said.

V. Richards' party platter service offers a standard selection of sliced meat and cheeses, she said, but the retailer then takes its trays beyond the standard.

"We include bread, condiments, sliced tomatoes and lettuce, so that our customers have a complete tray and do not have to think about all those details."

At this time of year, vegetable and fruit platters are requested most often at Inserra's ShopRite units, according to Hirt. Those products receive extra attention. All the vegetable and fruit platters Inserra ShopRite offers are specially designed, and come complete with a dip, he explained.

Harris Teeter pays particular attention to packaging and presentation in an effort to stand out from the many competitors in its Southeastern marketing areas.

"Each tray is presented so that it has the appearance of home preparation. It must be presented in an attractive, convenient way," said Kinsey. "We want customers to be able to simply slip our product right onto their table and be proud to offer it to their guests."

Substitutions and options are also key selling points for retailers striving to please customers and court their repeat business.

Harris Teeter offers a myriad of options, Kinsey said. "Customers aren't limited to just the traditional deli and vegetable platters. We have a wide offering of products for customers to pick and choose from because we want to emphasize that customer service is No. 1."

Adding and substituting items is a very common occurrence at V. Richards, according to Little. "We often are asked to cut back or eliminate salami on our sliced meat and cheese trays and use more turkey items, such as smoked turkey breast, or add Alpine Lace cheese," she said.

At Jungle Jim, the retailer has sharpened up the offerings by substituting all commodity salads with its own homemade offerings.

"The biggest calling card we have is that we do custom trays and custom work," said McKinney. "That is why we shifted to homemade pasta salad, potato and macaroni salads. It may be more costly but the customer expects to pay for special work."

She added that the pricing structure of Jungle Jim party trays is still competitive in the market, despite the changes the company has made.

Still, the substitution of product, custom orders and staff training all chip away at the bottom line, retailers said. But the rewards of increased sales are there for operators who stay true to the program.

"Retailers who don't worry so much about gross margins and work off a cents-per-pound [measurement] see success," said Broene. "They are concentrating more on volume dollars, not necessarily percentage."

To promote their programs, the retailers SN interviewed all use standard tactics such as disseminating full-color brochures or fliers with complete descriptions of the trays in the program, usually right at the deli counters.

The best promotion, however, is the tray that's a hit at a party. Most retailers reported that their programs are benefiting the most from word of mouth.

On a seasonal basis, operators do use coupons or special fliers to generate awareness and interest in tray programs, however.

Clemens Markets, Kulpsville, Pa., for example, inserts a promotional piece featuring deli platters in circulars during peak sales periods, said Al Kober, deli buyer.

Roundy's puts coupons into ads during the high deli-tray sales periods. Broene reported that some retail operators premake party trays for grab-and-go business, and thus often premake the particular item that is featured in the ad in anticipation of volume.

Apart from the standard meat, cheese and vegetable platters, retailers reported successes with more food-service-oriented offerings for at-home entertaining.

Clemens Markets just introduced an upscale picnic box that will be available into the Memorial Day weekend, said Kober.

"This item would be more for small group entertaining. It is a little bit nicer with a real added touch," he said.

The box includes a Clemens preglazed Flame Glazed Spiral Sliced Honey Ham, with 2 pounds of potato salad and 2 pounds of coleslaw. The ham is sold for $5.99 per pound, with most hams being in the 6-pound range. Clemens offers the salads free so the average retail for the upscale picnic box is $30.

Other operators report good success with items beyond the traditional sliced meat and cheese offerings.

"Hors d'oeuvres do really well; they are a big seller," said V. Richards' Little. "Our Cajun drummies chicken wings have really caught on."