As Chinese-Americans prepare to celebrate the Chinese New Year, grocery retailers actively promoting Chinese products may well be howling with delight.
This year, the event falls on Feb. 10, which should mark the climax of the hottest selling period of the year for Chinese groceries. Chun King, for example, reports that nearly 30% of its annual volume is moved in the Chinese New Year season.
The traditional celebration lasts for about two weeks leading up to
the first day of the new year. Retailers who are linking promotions of Chinese food to the Chinese New Year said it's common for sales to increase drastically during the period. While many run ads only once, in-store signs and promotions are on display for up to a month before the new year begins, they said.
Items such as soy sauces, chow mein noodles and complete dinners are not only seen in ads, but are being rung up at registers like no other time of the year.
"It gives us a chance to promote items we don't often do," said Paul Duckworth, a buyer at Thrifty Food Stores, Burlington, Wash. "There's obviously a spike in the category at that time."
"If I had to guess, I'd say the new year brings in 10 to 15 times the typical sales volume; and that's a conservative estimate," said a buyer for a Midwest chain.
Chinese food sales volume is "easily four to five times what it normally is," said Paul Tiberio, a buyer for Price Chopper Supermarkets, Schenectady, N.Y.
"I suppose it's a big increase," said Larry Brown, a buyer at Ball's Super Food Stores in Kansas City, Kan. "I can't give you a percentage, but it's a big increase."
"There's a big increase; percentagewise I'd say at least 100%, probably more," said Duane Jackson, vice president of grocery operations at Sun Management Services, Defiance, Ohio. Sun Management operates 12 stores under four store names.
For some retailers, those sales increases come from almost all sections of the store. "We run a two-page spread advertisement promoting items from every department," Jackson said.
"We tie into all the departments as best we can during that period of time. The grocery department has the bi-packs [complete dinners], noodles and things like that; the produce department has items like bok choy; the nonfood department will put woks on sale, and the meat department will advertise the stir-fry-type meats," said Jackson.
All the retailers contacted by SN who promote the holiday told of similar promotional strategies, with ads appearing in newspapers and store circulars.
"We run a number of items from different departments in our Chinese New Year ad," Brown at Ball's Super Food Stores said.
"We do two Chinese food ads during the year," said David DiGeronimo, vice president and grocery buyer for Victory Supermarkets, Leominster, Mass. "We do one now and one in the fall for the harvest moon. We promote products in almost every department each time."
Pat Redmond, a buyer at Rosauers Supermarkets, Spokane, Wash., said his sales of Chinese products peak during the new year promotion.
Redmond said Chun King products are the best sellers of the mainstream items. "We also carry a lot of specialty items; a lot of imported items through a distributor."
Rosauers, Redmond said, will run ads promoting products from all areas of the store. "We run coupons, too," he said. "We'll run something where if they buy a bag of rice they get water chestnuts free."
"Chinese food can be a quick and fairly cheap dinner," said the buyer for the Midwest chain. "Promotions like these help get these products in front of people so they think about buying them later, too. An event like this helps get sales to a level where we're happy."
"We're looking at some aggressive promotion," said Tiberio at Price Chopper. "It's a month-long feature we do. We have displays in the stores and have contests for the store managers, with incentives to sell the most product. Chinese food needs to be in front of the customers. It's more of an impulse item than one they buy on a regular basis."
Tiberio said Hormel's new House of Tsang products are getting some attention. "They're vegetable and sauce dishes. All the customer has to do is add the meat. They come in Tokyo teriyaki, Hong Kong sweet and sour, Szechuan hot and spicy, and Cantonese classic varieties. We have high hopes for them. We hope they add excitement."
According to a Hormel official, the House of Tsang products Tiberio mentioned are being test-marketed. Early reports have been favorable, but no decision has been made if and when the products will be available nationwide. Tiberio also mentioned some new sauces from La Choy. He said although it's too early to tell, he's hoping they will do well. The sauces, La Choy Stir-Fry Vegetables 'N Sauce, come in four varieties: sweet and sour, teriyaki, mandarin soy and spicy Szechuan. As with the new House of Tsang products, consumers stir-fry their choice of meat and add the product. The jars have a suggested retail price of $1.99.
La Choy also recently introduced a line of four single-can, noodle-based entrees to its line: Oriental-style noodles with vegetables and chicken; Oriental-style noodles with vegetables and beef; Oriental-style noodles and vegetables, and sweet & sour noodles and chicken with sauce. They have a suggested retail price of $1.69. Chun King has also introduced some new products in time to spice things up for the Chinese New Year. It's now offering Oriental Additions, a line of four hot soy sauces: all-purpose, hot teriyaki, hot honey and hot garlic. Chun King has also introduced a new line of seasoned chow mein noodles, also available in four flavors: almonds, peanuts, garlic and ginger, and sesame bits. Both new lines were introduced in October.
These new products will help what one manufacturer called a "sleepy" category with a potential for growth.
Many retailers are banking on manufacturer promotions to help bring in sales. "La Choy has a display contest," said DiGeronimo. "We sell more at that time. That's usually when the bi-packs are put on sale. When they're not on sale, they're over $3. As a price point, that's too much. When they're on sale, they're at $2.99. We have to sell them at $2.99 in order to move them."
Jackson said his company's proximity to La Choy's Archibald, Ohio, plant means a natural connection. "We do a big job with them this time of year. La Choy promotes Chinese New Year and they have a display contest." Jackson said fortune cookies also do well near the Chinese New Year. His stores carry them in both the produce and grocery aisles.
Duckworth said Thrifty, which operates 12 stores under the names Food Pavillion, Marketplace and Thrifty Foods, will conduct in-store demonstrations using Chinese products. "We're big into demos," he said. "We try to tie in with meat or seafood items whenever we can."
Chinese New Year is apparently not considered as sure a bet for promoting as most mainstream holidays. Some retailers interviewed said they choose not to promote the event, citing stagnant sales for the category during the rest of the year.
But others said many Oriental products sell well year-round because their use has been "Americanized."
"Soy sauce sells all year long because people use it for barbecues," said Juanita Hall, buyer for Nob Hill General Store, Gilroy, Calif. "People don't necessarily use Chinese items for Chinese food. Water chestnuts always sell well. Chinese noodles sell pretty well. I think people use them to put on their salads. Rice vinegar is used all the time; it seems to have gotten to the yuppie stage."
The buyer for the Midwest chain said soy sauce also sells well all year at his stores. "The light soy sauces are selling particularly well," he added.
"We're selling more of the condiments that go with Chinese food," Brown at Ball's Super Food Stores said. "People seem to be finding uses for them when making other kinds of food."
Duckworth said the Chinese New Year can be an opportunity to introduce a new style of food to those unfamiliar with it, as can other ethnic holidays. "I question whether it goes to the Chinese population or others. Maybe people are just trying new products."
That seems to be the case at one major Southern chain.
"There's been an ethnic explosion recently," said an executive at the chain, who asked not to be named. "Whether it's Tex-Mex, Hispanic, Cuban, Korean, whatever, there's just been an explosion. "One of the most surprising things for us is our store that sells the most Chinese food is in an area, according to our demographic studies, that doesn't have much, if any, Asian population. It just goes to show how the American palate is changing. Thai food, for example, doesn't necessarily sell well in a Thai neighborhood."