Red-eyed mousse mice, tombstone cupcakes, cake-pop ghosts and other spooky treats mark Halloween in supermarket bakeries across the country, and many retailers are expecting these items to boost sales. But that's just the beginning.
They're optimistic about their prospects for the entire holiday season, right through Christmas.
Some have ordered ingredients and supplies in anticipation of up to a 15% rise in sales. Others have ordered more.
Highland Park Market, Manchester, Conn., is posting a 4% year-to-date gain, and Bob Thatcher, bakery director at the five-unit independent, told SN he's expecting a good holiday sales season.
“We expect business to exceed last year's. I'm both surprised and happy with our bakery sales so far, and after Halloween, we'll start our ‘wild weekend specials,’ which bring people in.”
The first of such specials is on ad this week. It's for two 3-inch pumpkin cheesecakes for $4.99. The everyday price is $3.99 each.
For Halloween, the company has gone all out with spider and ghost decals on their bakery cases. Orange and black streamers bedeck the department, and their locally renowned mousse items are a draw.
“We put red eyes on our mousse mice [a signature item that's a mouse shape on a slice of cake, dipped in chocolate] just to give them a spooky look.”
All things pumpkin get a prominent spot, too, and mousse tops pumpkin pies and pumpkin cheesecakes.
One of the company's best sellers for Halloween is one of its priciest. It's a cake that the department has dubbed “the junk food cake,” providing a twist on trick or treating. It's an 8-inch, single-layer, usually chocolate marble, iced with orange butter cream, with candy piled high on its top.
“Packets of M&M'S, Snickers pieces, all the kinds of things kids get when they go trick or treating,” Thatcher said. The cake's retail is $12.99.
Meanwhile, at Pennington Quality Market, Pennington, N.J., bakery director Robert Breault is selling a lot of specialty cupcakes, a lot of them decorated as enormous eyeballs.
“Specialty cupcakes are the thing here for Halloween. We'll bake 50% more this year than we did last year,” said Breault.
There are eyeballs and spiders, but the best seller is Pennington's “graveyard” cupcake. It's topped with a tombstone, gummy worms, crumbled Oreos and a plastic hand reaching out of a grave.
That one, like the others, retails for $1.49.
“The graveyard cupcake is labor intensive, but by now, we've got it down to a system that works well,” Breault said.
Breault is one of those bakery directors planning for a great upcoming holiday season.
“We've ordered based on our expectation of selling 10% to 15% more bakery items this holiday season. We're basing those projections on our sales of specialty items [during this past year]. No matter what, people are willing to spend money on theirs kids, for fun things.”
Nyla Stromberg, cake manager at Marketplace Foods & Drug in Minot, N.D., is also very busy. Her cake business is up 33% year-to-date, and she expects that sales boom to continue throughout this year's holiday season.
“We're having a hard time keeping up. Last week, we sold $15,000 worth of cakes. It's taking us three days to do what we used to do in one day,” because she's short-handed.
“There's an oil boom here so I can't get people to work, and the business just keeps coming. The whole store's sales are up,” Stromberg said.
Much of the extra business is, in this case, borne of tragedy. Marketplace's sister store was completely wiped out by floods a few months ago. So were more than 4,000 homes in Minot and its surrounding area, Stromberg explained.
“We're getting the business that our other store would have had.” She suggested, too, that people having a hard time may try to cheer themselves or their children up with cute, specialty cakes.
Her department's cakes are so outstanding earlier this fall, Stromberg and her baking and decorating team won awards in 16 out of 20 categories at the North Dakota Grocers Convention in Fargo. Stromberg took the People's Choice award with a doll she had created from fondant.
She also came home from that convention with a machine that makes cake pops, and not surprisingly, she and her team have fashioned Halloween cake pops in spooky shapes.
“I just went over to the lumberyard yesterday and bought a long board which we drilled holes in. We'll line up the cake pops on that and display them that way.”
There will be mummies and ghosts dipped in white chocolate, and also some little pumpkins in the cake pop line up, Stromberg said. They're $2.50 each.
Just as Thatcher at Highland Park Market did, Tammy Kampsula, business director of bakery at 51-unit United Supermarkets , Lubbock, Texas, described Halloween as a cupcake and cookie fest.
“Cupcake sales continue to grow. We have cupcakes in multiple sizes and packs,” Kampsula said. “We figure-pipe Halloween characters on a 1-ounce cupcake, which we refer to as pixie cupcakes. Cutout pumpkin-shaped cookies are also a strong seller for us.”
Kampsula pointed out that in addition to Halloween sales at its regular and Market Street formats, United's Hispanic-focused Amigos stores promote bakery items for Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration on Nov. 1-2. A lot of pan de muerto and Mexican pastry trays are rung up for those days.
A Pumpkin Face event at Riesbeck's Food Markets, St. Clairsville, Ohio, has grown each year.
“Last year we had 440 children participate at our nine stores that have bakeries,” John Chickery, bakery director at the 16-unit chain, said.
The bakery makes a single-layer round cake iced in orange and invites children, for two or three hours on a day prior to Halloween, to do their own decorating. The cake is $4.99, and the kids are provided with a whole lot of different decorations for the cakes, such as sprinkles, icing and candies. Associates supervise and help with suggestions.
“That event is a real attention-getter. The kids have a ball, and I see adults who don't even have children with them just watching what's going on.
“Times may be tough, but people are doing things that don't cost much,” Chickery said.
There's a normal lull for a couple of weeks after Halloween, but that allows retailers to get in gear for the biggest selling season of the year. From then through New Year's.
“After two average weeks following Halloween, the holiday season begins,” United's Kampsula said. “Those two weeks give us the time to ramp up production and get ready,” she said, adding that she expects sales for this year's holiday season to be as good or better than last year's.
At Riesbeck's, as soon as Halloween is over, the bakery will begin displaying baskets and trays of slices of its signature poppy seed and nut rolls. Sampling will be increased, too.
“We have a pumpkin roll filled with cream cheese and a chocolate roll with red or green filling and holly berry decorations on top,” Chickery said.
He added that, for the first time since 2009, the company will reinstitute its “Sample Fest,” a one-day event at which all the perishables departments sample their fare all day long.
“We'll make up gift-type items like baskets and trays with our homemade cookies and have them displayed prominently during the Fest. The idea is to get people thinking of giving a food gift this year, or maybe taking one of our trays as a house gift,” Chickery said.
“When they've tasted our cookies, I believe they'll think that way. They [recipients of the gifts] will remember a tray or basket of delicious cookies from Riesbeck's long after they've forgotten the ice scraper somebody gave them last year.”
Riesbeck's in-store bakery sales are slightly off from last year, but Chickery expects the boost Halloween brings to create some momentum that'll continue into the holiday season.
All the retailers SN talked to agreed that Halloween falling on a Monday is a plus, because on weekdays there are office parties, and in some places, schools, too, have a party or at least a cookie or cupcake break.
“It's good because people will be partying through the weekend, too,” Kampsula said.
Chickery expects a significant sales hike for Halloween.
“Normally, when you get to the end of the month, sales are down, but people plan for Halloween.”
In fact, Halloween's not just for kids anymore.
“Adults are doing more at Halloween time,” said Carl Richardson, a consultant to the bakery industry, who's based in Rochester, Mich. “You know when you see costume shops popping up all over the place that people are doing something for Halloween.”
Indeed, a syndicated news story earlier this month confirmed that. It pointed to a consumer survey that showed more people this year were going to mark Halloween in some way even though they said they wouldn't be spending much money.
Richardson, a veteran of the supermarket industry, has always been an advocate of theme merchandising, and he sees the next 11 weeks as prime time to introduce themes.
“After Halloween, there's harvest.”
In many states, there are end-of-harvest parties or events.
Richardson advises retailers to keep up the momentum after Halloween with events right through the holiday season.
“Right now, retailers could create an event by dipping caramel apples right out on the floor in the bakery.”
This is the best selling period of the year and everybody should take advantage of it, from supplier to distributor to retailers, Richardson pointed out.
“Costumes and point-of-sale materials provided by suppliers could be put to good use,” he said. “You've got the employees, the suppliers, the spiffs. Use them to keep up themes during the fall. It just takes some creative thinking.”