WINTER WONDERS

In-store bakeries typically see sales slump during the slow, dreary month of January. To combat the winter doldrums, retailers use key products, from plaid wedding cakes to flaxseed bread and hot apple pie, to attract customers and drum up sales.After eating with abandon over the holidays, consumers, come January, typically resolve to follow their diets. That means they sidestep the in-store bakery.

In-store bakeries typically see sales slump during the slow, dreary month of January. To combat the winter doldrums, retailers use key products, from plaid wedding cakes to flaxseed bread and hot apple pie, to attract customers and drum up sales.

After eating with abandon over the holidays, consumers, come January, typically resolve to follow their diets. That means they sidestep the in-store bakery. For retailers, the drop down from the holiday high is always bumpy, but they have a few strategies to soften the landing -- and make the bakeries irresistible.

In Minot, N.D., where winter temperatures regularly drop to 24 below zero, Market Place Food & Drug is making the most of color and creativity to get customers to come in and take a look. And they're not just looking, they're buying.

"We just put seven specialty cakes, eight-inch ones, out on the top shelf a couple of hours ago. Four are already gone. That's at $12.99 each. None are cheap. Our quarter-sheet winter theme cakes are $21.99," said Nyla Stromberg, cake department manager at the 90,000-square-foot store in Minot, about 100 miles north of Bismarck.

The family-owned independent, based in Bemidji, Minn., is not one to cut prices in January. The strategy here is to make the bakery exciting so customers cannot help but stop in, Stromberg explained. Then the aim is to show them something so colorful and pretty that they, or their kids, feel they can't do without it.

"Sure, there's a slump in sales after the holidays, but we do our best to get variety out there, some fun things our customers haven't seen in our cases before," she said. "We actually try to make this time of year a mini holiday. Our winter theme cakes, for instance, are particularly colorful and different. Customers come in to see what we've done. One of our decorators did a ski slope by cutting the top layer of an eight-inch in half and propping it on a slant. Then [the decorator] frosted it, and put some trees and skier figures coming down the slope. We're also getting ready for the bridal shows this time of year. Every year after the holidays, we talk about cutting back some hours, but we haven't been able to do it. There's too much to do."

Nobody in North Dakota can ignore that it's winter. So, Stromberg asked, why not make the best of it? She pointed out that she's now displaying cakes that feature images of penguins, polar bears, and stocking caps with big snowflakes on them.

As Super Bowl playoffs began, Stromberg turned out some football theme cakes. The designs were generic: a player, a shoe, a football. It's a bit dangerous to favor a team because both the Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota Vikings went into the playoffs. In this little town, folks have strong loyalties to one team or the other, Stromberg said. In the bread department, Vikings and Packers balloons were swaying overhead earlier this month.

Recognizing that many shoppers are trying to lose a few pounds, Stromberg also caters to dieters with a large display of sugar-free angel food cakes and sugar-free pudding cups.

Out on the West Coast, Kevin Stormans, one of the owners of Bayview Thriftway and Ralph's Thriftway in Olympia, Wash., has no trouble drawing consumers into the bakeries. Locally branded products are the key to attracting customers and maintaining sales, he said.

"Since we take a different approach altogether, offering local brands in each category that are renowned in the region, even just the city, people come into our bakery looking for them," he said.

Contrary to the usual focus on impulse items, Stormans lets customers know that whatever it is in baked goods they need or want, they can find the best there is in any category at his stores.

"We partner with local -- very local -- and regional bakeries that have good reputations [and] are renowned to source the best of the best in breads, the best of the best in bagels, the best of the best in high-end tortes and pastries," he said. "They're brands people know. This is one of the deliberate ways we differentiate from our competition. So you can see that our sales are differently driven, whether it's January or not. Except for the usual high of the holidays, our sales stay at a pretty even keel. It's the very high-quality brands and the big variety that keep things going. We don't do things like putting bread on sale or having two-for-one blowouts."

Taking an opposite tack, Strack & Van Til Supermarkets, Schererville, Ind., does cut prices, especially on angel food cake that diet-conscious customers can embrace with little guilt.

"We do take particular care to keep our displays full and appealing-looking. We cater to dieters by putting our whole angel food cakes on sale at half price: $1.29 is hard to resist no matter what," said a bakery associate at one of the company's Schererville stores in northwest Indiana. "That's our un-iced one. And for the iced angel food cakes, we make a point of telling customers those cakes are iced with non-dairy frosting. No fat."

At 10-unit Morton Williams Associated points to grab customers' attention in the bakery.

"It's always impulse, but more so at this time of year, and it has to be at a good price," he said. "We started up a new program with 10 different varieties of frozen-dough pound cakes that we can price at $3.99 and still get a good margin. Almost anybody will spend $4 for a good-looking, quality cake."

Travaglione explained the new program helps tame shrink as well -- because as displays sell down they can be replenished quickly and there's no over -- pouring of dough.

"It's preformed dough, already in the [loaf pan] tins that they're baked in. Then we put them right out to sell in the tins," he said. "If it's an unusually busy day and we sell down, we just drop some in the oven and we've got more in 30 minutes. We can replenish the display that quickly. The quality is excellent and the consistency is there, too. There's no over-pouring of dough. When you have associates doing it, they're apt to use too much or too little. We've taken on a similar muffin program and corn bread batter in a cardboard box that you can actually put in the oven, bake it, take it out, and sell it in the box."

Talking about variety, Travaglione said he keeps rotating the 10 varieties of pound cake to keep up interest. He also makes a big thing of fruit pies for $3.99.

"People want to see some variety they didn't see during the holidays. Apple pie. This is good pie season," he said.

The post-holiday period can be a relatively strong time for retailers that specialize in healthier baked goods. Mustard Seed Market & Cafe, a natural foods supermarket based in Akron, Ohio, doesn't see much of a drop in business after the holidays.

"We have a little less drop than others. In fact, January and February traditionally are not bad months for us. I think it's the advantage we have as a natural foods market. We emphasize the healthy aspects. For instance, we spotlight flaxseed bread and make note of the fact that none of our products contains hydrogenated fats," said Bev Shaffer, bakery director at Mustard Seed, which also has a store in Solon, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb.

Shaffer added that the company takes advantage of the slower pace in January to reassess its product mix, and do some research and development. One new product that hit stores Jan. 1 is a 100% whole-wheat bread with a particularly good texture. Shaffer said it's doing well. Customer feedback on its texture and flavor has been excellent, she said.

"I think we get some new customers this time of year," Shaffer said. "Mainstream shoppers thinking health and diet gravitate toward us now."

WEDDING BELL BLUES

MINOT, N.D. -- Market Place Food & Drug's cake department doesn't take the January sales doldrums seriously. In fact, the department's associates are busy now getting ready for the months ahead, when they'll likely be turning out three wedding cakes a day.

Bakery officials this month have been devoted to showing off the high-margin wedding cake line at weekend bridal shows -- here in this town of fewer than 40,000 people, and in Bismarck, the state capital.

"Actually, we have nine new wedding cakes right now sitting on the top shelf of the case in the bakery, ready to be taken to the show this weekend. They attract a lot of attention," said Nyla Stromberg, cake department manager at the seven-unit, Bemidji, Minn.-based retailer's flagship store here.

It's no wonder they get noticed. They're offbeat to say the least. Some might say they're wild. The stand-out is a yellow, pink and white plaid cake.

"People have been going away from white for wedding cakes, and we are, too. Ours are bright. We have a hot pink one, a lime green, and then one that's a softer lime green with purple and blue hydrangeas," Stromberg said.

Stromberg, herself a prize-winning decorator with 26 years of experience, gets involved in the design and decorating of the cakes. She also calls on the creativity of her eight-person cake decorating team. They all put a lot of effort into presenting something different when bridal show time comes around, she said.

One of Stromberg's decorators told SN last week that an estimated one-third to one-half of the store's wedding cake business is generated in January at the local and regional bridal shows.