WHERE'S THE LOVE?

Retailers are finding there's a little less love these days for traditional Valentine's Day chocolates. So, like ardent suitors, Center Store executives are adding diet-sensitive products and employing larger cross-merchandising themes in hopes of wooing their customers to buy at least a little something for their sweethearts.Admittedly, tying in boxed chocolates with items like wine, flowers or even

Retailers are finding there's a little less love these days for traditional Valentine's Day chocolates. So, like ardent suitors, Center Store executives are adding diet-sensitive products and employing larger cross-merchandising themes in hopes of wooing their customers to buy at least a little something for their sweethearts.

Admittedly, tying in boxed chocolates with items like wine, flowers or even strawberries has spelled moderate success for retailers in previous years. Yet, with the nation on low-carb alert this year, many operators told SN they are planning promotions that feature chocolates as only secondary attractions for Valentine's Day.

Some grocers are also still feeling threatened by alternate channels that can, and will, offer boxed chocolates at a discounted price.

"It kind of seems like everybody's got seasonal candy, whether it's Wal-Mart or Target or Kmart -- everybody is after the buck," said Michael Hixson, store manager, Dahl's Food Markets, Des Moines, Iowa. However, he still plans to cross merchandise chocolates for Valentine's Day with items including wine and general gift items. In the past, Dahl's has hung balloons over its chocolate displays, and even set up some flower arrangements with boxes of candy around them for the holiday.

In keeping with the times, Dahl's recently took on several items from Russell Stover's new line of low-carb chocolates, from assorted chocolates to peanut butter cups and toffee chips.

"I don't think people buy chocolate like they used to; a lot of people are on diets and stuff, a lot of people go out to eat. Or [husbands] buy flowers because the wife will say, 'Why did you get me chocolates? I don't need that,"' Hixson said.

For most consumers, the Valentine's Day holiday is no laughing matter. It is a day to impress, and many don't view their supermarket as being up to par with candy shops and even specialty stores when it comes to providing the goods to satisfy their sweetheart's sweet tooth.

"If you are going to give your wife or your boyfriend or whoever chocolate, I'm not sure if you'd want to be giving them supermarket chocolate. There would be more of a tendency to go to more of a specialty store," Ron Tanner, vice president of communications for the New York-based National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, told SN.

To that end, many retail chains across the country have installed specialty chocolate shops. Too, specialty grocery stores like West Point Market in Akron, Ohio, hawk as much product as possible during peak holiday times.

This February, the retailer will be cross promoting chocolate truffles with champagne as it has in the past. Chocolate liqueurs from Godiva will also feature prominently this year, as will chocolate fondue, which is extremely popular, according to Rick Vernon, chief executive officer.

"It's a romantic end-of-the-meal type thing for two people. We put a little kit together, and that's really popular," Vernon said.

Chocolates are sought out throughout the year at West Point Market, but special promotions for Valentine's Day bring an added excitement into the store, he said.

"We cross merchandise chocolate with produce, and we hand-dip strawberries in dark, milk and white chocolate," Vernon said. "We sample the wine and the chocolate usually on a Saturday, and we do that in the wine shop. We have a pretty big chocolate shop, and we highly promote Godiva because it's such a popular thing."

The more mainstream grocers, who are often bound by somewhat limited product selection, traditionally stick to more low-key promotional tactics, sources told SN.

"They don't do huge [promotions]; I guess you would have to call it a second-tier holiday. It's a short window, and there's not a huge basket size in terms of people spending hundreds of bucks to get this stuff," said Peter Breen, managing director of the In-Store Marketing Institute, Chicago. "They all dedicate the circular to it and get some special displays up and use it to sell the perimeter things like the flowers and the baked goods, cakes and cupcakes and things like that. And, they try to sell a lot of candy for the week before and the week of," Breen observed.

Indeed, Thrifty Foods, Victoria, Canada, plans to use its circular to help boost Valentine's Day chocolate sales this year. A special section is planned for the circular of Feb. 4, which will feature some of the retailer's higher-end chocolates. The chain also plans to adorn its 17 stores -- and one additional store on the mainland -- with Valentine's banners and posters at the checkouts, according to Tammy Averill, promotions coordinator. As is the case with many grocers, Valentine's Day is not seen as a top-selling holiday at Thrifty by any means. In fact, the grocer only started actively promoting the occasion last year, Averill told SN. However, a contest in which consumers could win a romantic gift basket filled with items from all departments in the store was so popular -- generating about 5,500 hits on the retailer's Web site during its first week in operation -- that Thrifty will repeat the contest again this year, she said.

Like Thrifty's contest, many retailers invest in more Valentine's Day promotions that don't directly revolve around their chocolate selections. For example, Tracey Spencer, communications manager, Wild Oats, Boulder, Colo., told SN, "We do a couple of things in floral; we seem to do even more cross promoting between floral and other departments than we do with chocolates."

Albertsons, Boise, Idaho, will most likely stick close to strategies it has used in the past, which include a number of cross promotions with flowers, chocolates, wine, steaks, cards and other gifts throughout the store, according to company spokeswoman Karianne Cole.

"Strawberries are, surprising to me, a huge seller on Valentine's Day. We support our merchandising strategy with giveaways on local radio stations of different kinds of Valentine's Day meals -- steaks and wine, flowers, party trays and the like," Cole said.

Yet, considering the constant battle to become the only channel shopped by consumers, supermarkets may be missing out by not playing up their strengths whenever the occasion presents itself, whether it be a local sporting event or a nationally observed holiday like Valentine's Day.

"I think for stores that have really nice chocolate departments, [Valentine's Day] is a good chance for them to make their chocolates really stand out," said the NASFT's Tanner. "It's really the chance for them to expose those products and build sales in the long term, too, if people try them and like them."

"The grocery store is such a great vehicle because how many people do you hit? I mean, we all need to eat," Averill of Thrifty Foods added. "We try to come up with a theme for our promotions that all of our departments can take advantage of and cross promote. It's a bit of a challenge, but it's also fun."