SPRINGDALE, Ark. -- Harps Food Stores here heated its Thanksgiving meal sales by upscaling the ingredients and featuring the dinners in a nearly monthlong blitz of TV ads.
The chain chalked up a 20% increase in sales of its fully cooked turkey dinners, even with a retail price $10 higher than last year's. That was the second consecutive 20% increase over the previous year, and Harps officials say they anticipate similar gains next year over this season's boom.
And right after this year's long Thanksgiving weekend, several customers already were looking to place a dinner order for Christmas, officials said.
At Harps, as at some other chains this season, the Thanksgiving rush had cleaned out the pantry.
"We had some stores that sold 250 dinners," said Dan Kallesen, deli-bakery director at the 39-unit Harps. "With that, the delis had some $10,000 days. We ran out at the warehouse, and now we're scrambling for Christmas."
Kallesen credited improvements to the advertising program for the sales activity. "The key was starting the television and radio ads early, I think. We started them Nov. 1 and then increased the frequency as we got closer to the holiday. We also had the dinners on the front page of our circular," he said.
The chain spotlighted its holiday dinners in TV and radio ads for the first time last year, but the effort was tentative compared to this year. The ads didn't air last year until the week before Thanksgiving and the frequency was not as great, Kallesen said.
The quality of the dinners was stressed in this year's TV commercial, he added.
To help raise the perception of the dinners' quality and value, Harps added two gourmet desserts to the menu, Kallesen said. The gourmet desserts -- a 9-inch apple-caramel-pecan pie and a 32-ounce pecan cobbler -- got attention in the TV ads.
They took the place of an 8-inch pumpkin pie, which had been offered with the dinners in previous years.
"The desserts generally upscaled the dinners. They look like a better value than the pumpkin pie, which we sell two for $4," Kallesen said.
Focusing ads on the dinners themselves, and specifically pushing the quality of the food, is the recipe that many supermarket consultants have long advocated.
"Look at how the food-service people do it, with all the inserts and television ads," said Howard Solganik, president of Solganik & Associates, a Dayton, Ohio, consulting firm that works with supermarkets.
Solganik pointed out that Boston Market has done a great job of selling its ham dinners, even though in taste tests the product has not come out on top. "Their ads have been focused and frequent."
By comparison, supermarket ads -- on TV and in print -- are usually cluttered and almost never focus on one product, said Solganik.
Another retail consultant, David Bishop, an associate at Willard Bishop Consulting, Chicago, said Harps is on the right track with such a focused ad campaign.
"The TV ad was probably key," Bishop said. "That type of lift in sales could be attributed to the ad blitz. They exposed people to an offering they may not have been aware of before -- people who hadn't been in their stores."
Bishop added that most supermarkets make a mistake in not focusing their ads on a specific product or service.
"They tell you they have a lot of great things in the store, emphasizing variety and price," Bishop explained, but that doesn't breed customer loyalty like quality and value. Indeed, such an approach to advertising encourages customers to cherry pick from store to store, Bishop added.
Holiday dinners at Harps have been climbing the quality charts for a while, Kallesen pointed out. After fighting it out in the price wars for two years, the company decided to distinguish its dinners with quality, instead of angling at the lowest retail price.
"Three years ago, we were selling dinners at or below cost. We had a dinner at $19.99. We decided after that we didn't want to do that anymore," Kallesen said.
Adding the company's signature Martha Harp's dinner rolls to the meals was one of the first moves the chain made to set itself apart. Then, it replaced mashed potatoes with a broccoli and cheese casserole, which better met the company's quality standards.
Harps also saw a jump in sales when it cut its holiday dinner menu to just a single offering: a 10- to 12-pound turkey, cranberry sauce, giblet gravy, stuffing, dinner rolls and a pie.
At $39.95, the dinner's retail this year stood in a class by itself among supermarkets in the area. Most others were offering turkey dinners for at least $15 less. Harps' customers didn't balk at the retail price boost.
"They noticed the retail, but we didn't have one complaint. We did coach our associates to let customers know that the dinners had been upgraded with the new desserts," Kallesen said.
The price itself could have raised the quality perception in the customer's mind and thus could have contributed to Harps' sales success, David Bishop of Willard Bishop Consulting pointed out.
"This is evidence that consumers aren't as price sensitive as we once thought they were. They probably appreciate it that they can get a good dinner for that price," Bishop said.
Kallesen said that word-of-mouth advertising definitely compounded the positive effects of the TV ads.
"We have an unbelievable number of repeat customers. It's word-of-mouth that's doing it. People at dinner ask where they got the dinner. It's the quality plus the convenience they like," Kallesen said.
Christmas dinner sales usually don't hit the volume that Thanksgiving dinner sales do, but Kallesen said he's not so sure that pattern will be repeated this year. Indeed, the chain intends to keep a careful balance on supply and demand.
He added that a run of TV and radio ads were set to begin the first week in December, but then were held back. Whether or not they'll be aired the week before Christmas depends on whether or not Harps can source adequate supplies, he said.
The dinners are components brought in frozen and assembled in-store, at which time fresh-baked pies and rolls are added. Asked if he would keep the same menu for Christmas, Kallesen said he definitely would, with the exception of a handful of small units in rural areas.
"[At the rural sites], I'm going back to the basic dinner without the gourmet desserts and we'll take the retail down a little. They did OK with the [$39.99] dinners, but I just think we can sell more volume in those stores with a simpler dinner," Kallesen said.