Editor's note: This column is part of a series by Joe Watson, who spent 30-plus years as the director of produce for Rouses Markets and was named Produce Retailer of the Year in 2014. Joe now serves as a vice president of member engagement for PMA.


Thanksgiving is synonymous with the celebration of food in America, and over the generations how we celebrate has changed somewhat. Many of us picture the Norman Rockwell image of Thanksgiving with a roasted turkey in the center of the table and family gathered around.

I, like many, grew up with this same image and tradition. I vividly remember my grandmother taking charge of the entire production, which literally took days to complete. And as a child it was magical to witness all the wonderful food being made and prepared for what would be a house full of family and the occasional guest or friend.

Those days are long gone, however, for some. Over the past four years, I personally experienced how changes in my own family impacted how we celebrate this all-American holiday. Our home was always the gathering place for family and friends on holidays, and Thanksgiving was No. 1 on that list. When my wife and I relocated for my work, however, our family did not continue the tradition we had built.

Living in a new part of the country with no family around us, we changed how we celebrated by going out to dinner for Thanksgiving.

Prior to moving, never in my life had I thought I would be a person to go out for a holiday meal. What I have since learned is that this trend is not uncommon. My own personal experience prompted me to think about my days in retail and the impact changing family dynamics and traditions have on supermarkets for this critical food holiday.

For retailers, Thanksgiving is still the No. 1 food event of the year, but will it remain that way as food dollars increasingly are spent through other channels? Just how retailers are adapting to changing consumer trends is an important study. Dinner party gatherings such as “Friendsgiving” are becoming more popular trends. Such celebrations are held around the Thanksgiving period, not just Thanksgiving Thursday.

Retailers are increasingly capitalizing on what essentially are add-on food events by offering new menu items and recipes through their deli and foodservice departments as well as cheese and wine pairing options.

Since traditional Thanksgiving can be labor-intensive, these stand-alone celebrations with friends are often less formal, which makes way for shortcuts and timesavers like pre-washed, pre-cut vegetables. The Fresh Market, for example, is rolling out five new items including proteins, sides and desserts specifically targeting Friendsgiving events.

So here’s the deal: Thanksgiving is still an amazing opportunity to set your department and store apart. What you may have always done is not how it has to be done this year. Surely the holiday staples are required to achieve the bigger objectives. But how you choose to differentiate your store will have a long-lasting effect.

For example, Brussels sprouts stalks are a seasonal vegetable, but it looks unusual and can be intimidating to consumers. Provide guests with ideas on how to prepare Brussels sprouts and take away that fear factor. Consider including them in a guide for roasting vegetables to perfection. By removing that fear factor, retailers can potentially increase produce sales and minimize shrink and food waste. And don’t forget promoting floral, which plays an important role in setting the mood at gatherings and work as host/hostess gifts.

We used to say win the holiday and earn a new customer – and by that we meant we had a responsibility to bring the greatest value to all our guests.

Keep in mind that those who are hosting guests for Thanksgiving or Friendsgiving want to make a statement and a good impression with the presentation and menu items they prepare for their guests.

Thanksgiving is the best opportunity for retailers to make an impression on customers with special offerings and product selections and earn new customers in the process.

When you look back on this year’s Thanksgiving, assess what you did differently to provide the best overall value to your customer and what were the outcomes. But keep thinking ahead and building towards Christmas, which is a week shorter period this year with Thanksgiving so late. Oh my! Consumers depend on retailers for food, drink, and help with creating that in-home party atmosphere in December. So how will you keep momentum?

The holiday season is exciting, and it’s a time to be creative and entertaining.

Capture the mood of the season, and the results will be amazing. My take is that pre-Christmas selling is about theater.

In a recent IRI webinar on connecting fresh and the entire store for sales success, Sally Lyons Wyatt, executive vice president and practice leader for IRI, said U.S. consumers are looking for more connections from traditional retailers. In-store experiences are about engaging and exciting consumers, she said, noting we want consumers to look at grocery shopping as pleasure. Lyons Watt added that we need to bring new ideas to the consumer and minimize their trips elsewhere. In fact, since 2010 consumers have been spending more than 50 percent of their food dollars on food outside the home, according to IRI.

As I mentioned earlier, there are many food choices and the current retail landscape is complex. The idea of Christmas as theater is about creating a production within the store, taking the store to a level of experience not matched throughout the year. I look forward to exploring what makes for a magical Christmas at retail in my next column.

Best wishes to all for a great Thanksgiving.


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