YEAR OF THE HORSE POWERS PRODUCE PROMOTIONS

FAIRFIELD, Ohio -- While the Year of the Horse gives the Chinese an excuse to celebrate with friends and family, this month's Chinese New Year presents produce department managers with a chance to improve their own fortunes.The annual, ethnic holiday can be a sales-building opportunity for supermarkets. Produce department officials who play up the New Year in their stores told SN they see double-digit

FAIRFIELD, Ohio -- While the Year of the Horse gives the Chinese an excuse to celebrate with friends and family, this month's Chinese New Year presents produce department managers with a chance to improve their own fortunes.

The annual, ethnic holiday can be a sales-building opportunity for supermarkets. Produce department officials who play up the New Year in their stores told SN they see double-digit sales increases during the period.

Jungle Jim's International Market, a sprawling 200,000-square-foot, single-store independent, makes the most of the holiday, which starts Feb. 12. Various Asian produce items are being featured for three straight weeks in the store's ad.

Going well beyond the standard bok choy and bean sprouts, the produce department, which takes up an acre, carries more than 50 Asian items -- everything from durian to Chinese long beans, moa qua (fuzzy melon) and gai choy (mustard greens). Cards on shelf extenders in front of the products describe the items, and provide usage suggestions. There's also signage written in Chinese.

To strike a seasonal note, the store plays Asian music. Product displays are built around eye-catching props, like a lifesize mannequin pulling a rickshaw, produce buyer Chris Stoll told SN. Employees this year will display 5-pound pummelos -- "the size of basketballs" -- around the rickshaw, he said.

"We see double-digit sales increases in the month of February compared to January and March," Stoll said.

Jungle Jim's also encourages Anglos to try the exotic items. In-store weekend demos and TV monitors set up around the department teach consumers about the products, especially cooking techniques.

"The key is educating the consumer as much as we possibly can on the usage of these items," Stoll said.

It's not necessary to be a giant operator to get a sales boost from the New Year. Smaller, conventional supermarkets, like Copp's, Stevens Point, Wis., sees produce sales jump in February, thanks to patronage from local college students and the Hmong, natives of rural Laos in southeast Asia who represent a small but growing segment of the local population.

The retailer promotes the New Year with extra-large, bulk displays of bok choy, Japanese eggplant, napa and savoy cabbage, tofu, eggrolls and wontons, displayed on an 8-foot, refrigerated portable table, said Chris Sobczak, a store produce manager. Displays often include grocery products like soy sauce and some incarnation of the featured animal of the year, according to the Chinese calendar.

In past years, employees have built bamboo huts made of sugar cane, Sobczak said. Stir-fry demonstrations give customers a taste of Asia.

"We see at least double-digit sales increases," Sobczak said, speaking for his particular 60,000-square-foot store. "We quadruple [display] space for the New Year.

In Minnesota's Twin Cities, Rainbow Foods traditionally promotes the Chinese New Year in produce departments, most extensively in the stores with significant patronage from Hmong consumers, a produce department head said.

The company planned to build waterfall displays centered around one-pound packages of a stir-fry vegetable mix, said Scott Schaeppi, vice president of produce for Hopkins, Minn.-based Rainbow, a 44-store division of Fleming Companies.

A handful of items, including Fuji apples, napa and organic tofu -- a new item -- were to be featured. Typically, Rainbow sees Asian produce sales increases of 15% to 20%, he said.

"We probably have 12 stores we focus on for the New Year promotion," Schaeppi said.