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It's highly likely more consumers will opt to ring in the millennium at home with family and friends rather than suffer the consequences of over-hyped turn-of-the-century celebrations.Millennium parties aside, entertaining at home has become a mainstay lifestyle trend in America, and one that's expected to last, according to a recent survey by Home Furnishings News, New York. "This tradition shows

It's highly likely more consumers will opt to ring in the millennium at home with family and friends rather than suffer the consequences of over-hyped turn-of-the-century celebrations.

Millennium parties aside, entertaining at home has become a mainstay lifestyle trend in America, and one that's expected to last, according to a recent survey by Home Furnishings News, New York. "This tradition shows every sign of holding steady," stated the survey.

"There's been a swing to more time spent at home, particularly with the aging population that is also more health-conscious and doing more cooking in the home," said Jim Key, director of general merchandise and health and beauty care at Acme Markets of Virginia, North Tazewell, Va.

And home entertaining these days tends to be on a casual rather than formal level. "Casual entertaining in a more relaxed atmosphere is certainly on the rise. People are looking for more soothing and relaxing colors in their homes, and that applies to disposable party goods and candles, which are part of relaxed entertaining," said George White, general manager of Gibson Greetings' Bullseye Productions, Cleveland.

"The desire to get together with people has remained steady," noted spokeswoman Kathy Mishek at Hallmark Cards, Kansas City, Mo., despite today's busy consumer who has limited time for party planning.

As Mishek noted, while retailers recognize that consumers more frequently entertain at home, they seek convenience in doing so because of time pressures.

In light of home-entertaining trends, supermarkets are attempting to optimize the merchandising of partyware for easier shopping and impulse purchases. Chains are experimenting with various in-store locations and cross selling outside the greeting card aisle.

Giant Eagle, Pittsburgh, for example, has started to arrange assorted candles on glass display cubes in a gift area. The candles are grouped in a suggested decorative arrangement, explained Marcia Terstage, brand manager for Cleveland-based American Greetings' Guild House candle business unit. The products are priced from 79 cents for votives to $9.88 for candles in a 20-ounce jar.

The bakery sections have become a target location for partyware at Vons, Arcadia, Calif.; Winn-Dixie Stores, Jacksonville, Fla.; and Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C., according to suppliers. These chains either had no comment or did not return telephone calls to SN.

At Vons, partyware sales have increased several percentage points due to the move from greeting cards to a 3-foot display stand at the bakery department, said White of Gibson. Vons has been testing the concept for a year at 25 stores. This quarter, it will begin to roll the program out chainwide, he added. Winn-Dixie Stores enjoyed similar sales gains when party goods were relocated from social expressions to bakery, White said. In bakery, the two chains sell partyware ensembles, traditional dinner and dessert plates, napkins and table covers priced up to $4.

Food Lion and Giant Eagle this month also began one-store tests of partyware arranged at the bakery counter. The two chains feature their birthday cakes on top of a 4-foot fixture. "It's a great tie-in for moms when they want to see the party goods with the coordinated cakes," said Amy Bergstresser, brand manager of American Greetings DesignWare partyware unit.

"People are spending more time at home entertaining family and friends, and we want to take advantage of any cross merchandising opportunities to boost partyware and candle sales," said Key of Acme Markets of Virginia. Acme plans to devote 15% to 20% more space for candles and partyware to meet the growing demand for these products. The retailer will planogram the additional space during store resets, Key said.

"We look at a lot of different ways to merchandise products, like paper birthday-party plates and napkins next to birthday cakes, which has a tremendous impact on product turns," noted Mishek of Hallmark.

Norristown, Pa.-based Genuardi's Family Markets finds an adjacent kids' toy section an effective location to merchandise a 4-foot in-line set of children's decorated birthday-party plates, napkins and cups.

For more formal occasions, food chains earlier this year began offering upscale paper partyware in full color patterns with wide-rim designs. A selection from American Greetings features eight 11-inch dinner plates for $4.95, 16 lunch napkins at $4, and eight dessert plates for $2.75. The assortment includes matching invitations, place cards and guest towels.

Retailers can harness the leisure time people are spending at home and "capitalize on this trend with thank-you cards and notes, and computer stationery," said Karen Bartelme, executive director of American Greetings Designers Collection social stationery business unit.

Consumers are customizing their invitations and announcements on computer stationery and incorporating their party themes. "During the past two or three months, supermarkets have started using 4-foot sets of computer invitations, blank greeting cards and stationery with matching envelopes, priced from $2.99 to $10.99," said Bartelme.

Niemann Foods, Quincy, Ill., reports sales of its designer paper party goods up after the items were moved from greeting cards to an 8-foot set in paper goods in a one-store test this summer. The chain's partyware, candles and social-expression sales overall also jumped by discounting the category 40%, said Art Awerkamp, nonfood director.

Niemann's candle sales also increased 60% after category space was doubled to 8-foot sets during the past year, noted Awerkamp. Candles are priced up to $8.99. "Disposable partyware is a convenience item, and people have more money than time right now. They'd much rather pick up those decorative plates and toss them when finished," he said.

Candles have also become a big business in home entertaining and are used in 70% of U.S. households, according to marketing data from Gibson. As a result, the category has moved out of its commodity status into the decorative sector.

"There is an especially big demand for candles since they are part of every room and no longer used just in the living room. People now use candles to set the mood for themselves and their guests throughout the home," said White of Gibson.

Candles priced from $1.99 up to $10 do well at supermarkets when merchandised in the social-expression department, near air fresheners and gift sections, at the start of greeting-card racks, in bath-and-body and aromatherapy displays, manufacturers said.

Interest continues to grow for higher-end selections, from votives and aromatherapy to more decorative styles, priced up to $15, suppliers pointed out. "There is more interest for higher-end, larger candles that contain botanical fragrances, which are selling well," said White.

Supermarkets have expanded their candle departments over the past few years with wider varieties and higher price points, said suppliers. Supermarkets with 8 to 12 feet of in-line sets offer candle selections in glass, pillar, votive, taper for dinner, mini pillar, fragrance and birthday and aromatherapy types.

"Consumers use candles in providing a calming mood, and as home decorative accessories for ambiance, color and fragrance," Terstage said.

This month, Guild House introduced a 4-foot end with about 25 stockkeeping units in silver-, bronze- and gold-finish candles. Products on the display, which includes aromatherapy candles, are packaged in glossy metallic and priced from $1.25 to $7.50 for the tapers, pillars and other items. Guild House plans to expand its gift packs with four votive candles in a designed box that will retail for $5.99.