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Harry Potter is more than just a boy wizard.He is the perfect example of how supermarkets are becoming more involved in high-profile book releases to maximize convenience purchases and create an entertainment environment for customers.Taking full advantage of this summer's release of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," food retailers including Meijer, Stop & Shop, Publix, Kroger and Wal-Mart

Harry Potter is more than just a boy wizard.

He is the perfect example of how supermarkets are becoming more involved in high-profile book releases to maximize convenience purchases and create an entertainment environment for customers.

Taking full advantage of this summer's release of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," food retailers including Meijer, Stop & Shop, Publix, Kroger and Wal-Mart Stores held in-store events such as Meijer's "Midnight Magic" parties, celebrations that were synchronized in all 171 stores.

Popular book releases present a unique opportunity for retailers. "Harry Potter is a great example, since it is equally both a trip generator and a way to expose many more people to a retail store," said Bill Bishop, president of Willard Bishop Consulting, Barrington, Ill.

Many stores created a buzz through their promotional efforts. "Supermarkets had people talking about not having to go to the mall or book store, which attracted even more people to their stores. It brings a whole dimension of excitement to in-store activity," Bishop said.

Stop & Shop Supermarket Co., Quincy, Mass., threw midnight parties to celebrate the Harry Potter release in 14 of its 24-hour stores. Besides the book, the retailer also sold related DVDs and toys, as well as the preceding five Harry Potter book titles by displaying them nearby.

Providing a welcoming book section for the customer is one way to make in-store promotional events more common and convenient.

Some stores will combine DVDs, CDs, books and magazines in one place to offer a full-service entertainment section, which lends itself to promotional events and customer convenience, according to Ann Finn, vice president of consumer affairs and marketing for the Magazine Publishers of America, New York.

"Wegmans Food Markets [Rochester, N.Y.] is an example of a supermarket that hosts events like book signings in an area that combines entertainment products all together. This services the primary entertainment customer while possibly attracting a secondary customer," Finn said.

The synergy between organized promotions and organization of the book section is becoming more noticeable, Bishop said. "We are seeing more and more buttoned-up book sections that are more prominently called out with things like contemporary shelving, effective fixtures and clear categorization, making the products more shoppable," he said.

Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif., carries a Top 10 best-sellers selection in its larger stores, and 4 to 8 feet of paperbacks in most stores. "We keep the Top 10 displayed on an ongoing basis, rotating them out as they change, and we sell them at 25% off," said Tony Pooler, director of GM/HBC.

Food Lion, Salisbury, N.C., offers a mix of best sellers in hardcover and paperback. "We know customers have a great interest in books and magazines, and we want to provide a good selection," said spokesman Jeff Lowrance.

As for new releases, Food Lion participates in some, such as the most recent Harry Potter. "Clearly, the Harry Potter books appeal to adult as well as children readers," Lowrance said.

"The Harry Potter events helped parents get shopping done while kids were entertained," Brooke Vining, spokeswoman, Meijer, Grand Rapids, Mich., told SN following the release.

Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., sent out brochures and set up refreshment areas for kids to sit and listen to the story being read to make the community aware of the book's availability, Publix spokeswoman Maria Brous told SN at the time of the release.

Convenience has become one of the universal values across all categories, demographic groups and geographies, according to Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a New York-based research consultancy.

When opening new Publix stores, book department location is an important consideration, since books generate incremental profit, Brous said.

"Generally, most consumers in the U.S. expect to be able get anything they want, anywhere they are," Passikoff said. "Supermarkets have gotten smart in recognizing that if they open up some space" for categories like books, "they are able to get incremental sales."

With the holiday season coming up soon, the popularity of supermarket book selections is looking strong.

"Book sales do increase in the fourth quarter, with a larger influx of hardback best sellers releasing in October in anticipation of holiday buying, which has always been a trend in the publishing industry," Brous said. However, November and December are lighter as far as new releases go, she noted.

Rising gas prices and energy-saving practices will be a bigger factor this holiday season than in the past, Passikoff said. Buying a gift such as a hardcover book at a supermarket will mean one less trip for the customer, he said.

People are used to seeking out convenience. "Supermarkets have an audience that is predisposed to accept the venue as a convenient location where they can purchase almost anything," Passikoff said.

This predisposition to convenience highlights the natural opportunity supermarkets have to meet their customers' entertainment needs.

"When supermarkets host events that take on a life of their own, you have a one-two punch," Passikoff said.

Holding big promotions and presenting books as gift ideas are important ways to gain consumer attention. "It reminds consumers of the product and makes a connection," Bishop said.

The sequential nature of the Harry Potter releases has helped retailers enhance their past in-store promotional and marketing techniques in preparation for the later editions. "We have improved communications, and it is easier to project sales demands," Brous said.

Store-to-store coordination and communication with book distributors is very complex, retailers and consultants told SN. "Yet with a series of big releases, supermarkets can become well-oiled, improving upon a series of executional tasks that must be performed to have a successful release," Bishop said.

For Publix, book-release promotions can be somewhat limited due to the timing of releases and the availability of promotional support from book publishers, according to Brous.

However, the chain seeks to maximize customer convenience by participating in large promotions, because "big book releases are important for our customers, since it is one less stop that they need to make," Brous said.

The Harry Potter promotions in particular have been a welcome and expected generator of sales, so with only one more release to go, retailers are looking at other opportunities to promote.

"Once the Harry Potter releases are finished, there may be a gap or decline in sales," Brous said. "However, it will be made up with other incremental promotions."

Big authors as well as highly controversial autobiographies always garner promotion from Save Mart. "We don't promote everything, but if it hits our demographic and will cause them to purchase from an impulse standpoint, we will go ahead and promote it," Pooler said.

Paperbacks do well on a regular basis at Save Mart, so the retailer promotes them one publisher at a time through reduced prices. "We will usually take a percentage off of all Bantam, for example, or all Harlequin. That keeps the excitement going around the category. We will also work with our distributors to tie in a key author with the discount timing of a certain publisher," Pooler explained.

Keeping the excitement level at a high is critical. "Supermarkets are recognizing that these big events aren't just a one-off," Bishop said.

"Promotions teach shoppers to expect something great and show them that the supermarket is the place to go for blockbuster book releases," he said. "And that is a nice feather in the cap."

Prose All Over

Supermarket retailers are finding places throughout their stores to cross merchandise books.

There are books that tie into many locations throughout a supermarket, and retailers don't hesitate to bring that to the attention of consumers.

"We always use cross merchandising to sell books," said Tony Pooler, director of GM/HBC for Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto, Calif.

Save Mart ties cookbooks in with the ingredient-related store sections, for instance. "We had a barbecue cookbook in the summer months, and we sold it in the outdoor living assortment section," Pooler said.

Currently, Save Mart has a seafood cookbook displayed by the seafood counter.

"Cross-merchandising opportunities always exist in a grocery retailer," said Maria Brous, spokeswoman, Publix Super Markets, Lakeland, Fla., mentioning the pharmacy, meat, baby and pet departments as potential opportunities.

"Organized cross promotions are becoming more prominent, even though they differ from a historical market model," said Bill Bishop, president of Willard Bishop Consulting, Barrington, Ill. "Customers are busy, and you have to draw their attention frequently."