Spring 2009
Holiday Gourmet: The Season Never Tasted So Good! By Sharon Anne Waldrop

Affordable Luxuries

In this economy, it all comes down to this simple message: customers are looking for simple, affordable luxuries. For retailers like you, read small treats at low price points. Ron Tanner believes that this mantra plays out especially well in the specialty and gourmet food category where luxury can come at reasonable price points. The vice president of communications and education for The National Association for the Specialty Food Trade believes that specialty food gifts will play a big role in the 2009 holiday season. “People are looking for gifts that will make other people happy and feel good but aren’t expensive,” he says. “You can buy chocolates or jam sets for $10 and give a nice gift to somebody. By comparison, that’s two pairs of socks.” This year, Tanner says retailers can expect to see a lot of specialty food manufacturers focus on less expensive gifts retailing in the $10– $20 range. In the recent past this range was $30 – $40.

(Almost) everyone loves chocolate

A little gourmet chocolate goes a long way. “You can go out and have a fabulous chocolate experience and spend just a few dollars,” says Clay Gordon, author of Discover Chocolate: The Ultimate Guide to Buying, Tasting, and Enjoying Fine Chocolate. “It’s an affordable luxury. A really good artisan chocolate bar can be purchased retail for as low as $10 and makes a great inexpensive gift,” says Gordon. Case in point: The wholesaler Landrin USA based in Wilmington, DE, will be launching its Waferatto collection beginning this month. Most boxes in the chocolate confection collections retail for less than $10 each. Five flavors—all capturing the blend of a crisp wafer shell, smooth filling and crunchy nut—will be offered. The company also plans on a special holiday flavor in time for Christmas. Flavors include Waferatto Rich and Famous, Waferatto Coffee, Waferatto Choco, Waferatto Classic and Gold. Hazelnuts, almonds and coffee cream make for key ingredients in these collections. Cary’s of Oregon in Grants Pass produces artisan English toffee in five flavors—more traditional ones like milk chocolate with toasted almonds and also others like milk chocolate chai tea, dark chocolate with espresso, dark chocolate with hazelnuts, and dark chocolate mango. Wendy Just, vice president of marketing, says the company also offers toffee fingers, without the chocolate. Gordon reminds retailers that artisan and any other kind of gourmet chocolates do not have a long shelf life, so storeowners should search out one or two suppliers who can deliver on an on-demand basis. “Set up those relationships now to get your deliveries quicker when you need them,” says Gordon. “There is a direct relationship in confections between freshness and quality so ask the manufacturer what their best sellers are. Chances are that if an item is selling well, they’re producing a lot and the quality will be fresh.” A good supplier that has developed a relationship with you can be good for business too; once they get acquainted with you, they’ll know what you like and what will sell in your store, Gordon says.

Comfort zones

Gordon says that flavor trends in chocolate over the next couple of years are likely to stay within your customers’ comfort zones. “Consumers still want interesting flavors but will be less willing to take risks with tastes that are not familiar to them,” says Gordon. He recommends that retailers stay away from unfamiliar blends unless you know that you will have enough clientele that will buy them. Caramels, peanuts, walnuts, and pecans are familiar pairs with chocolate and are good core choices to offer.

Manufacturers can attest to the reality that common flavors are what customers are most comfortable buying right now. “Our milk chocolate almond flavor is a best seller because it’s a combination of flavors that people are used to,’ says Just at Cary’s of Oregon. Their dark chocolate almond is a close second.

Caramoo in Seattle WA, wholesales caramel-based confections in addition to other products. Caramel Crumble is their signature product and is available in original or honey flavors; the latter is a top seller. Caramoo also sells a crème fudge line that is made with a caramel base and available in vanilla, dark chocolate, and mocha flavors. The founder of the company, Lynn Anderson, says they are not looking to add any new flavors soon. “I’ve noticed that people during this time are pretty conservative and sticking to the tried and true,” Anderson says. “They’re more traditional on what they are looking for and are unlikely to go out on a limb.” The company’s dark chocolate and vanilla flavors are the most popular in their crème fudge line.

Other gourmet goods

According to a Booz & Company survey of nearly 1,000 consumers of various income and age ranges across the U.S., entertaining at home has increased by 27% over a recent six-month period. An attendant rise in the sale of gourmet goods should be around the corner.

The wide variety of gourmet sauces, rubs, and dips, is dizzying. Companies like Wild Thymes in Greenville, NY, wholesale a whole range of sauces. Vervacious in Biddeford, ME, sells a variety of sauces and rubs including their award-winning Espresso Balsamic Drizzle.

Then there are the chutneys (pineapple mango and dried fruit), artichoke lemon pesto and a wide variety of tapenades including roasted vegetable and fennel blood orange from wholesaler, The Gracious Gourmet in Bridgewater, CT. These products and more seem poised to take off as home cooking and entertaining swing back into fashion.

Christmas cheer

Tanner of the NASFT predicts that we’ll see a lot of traditional holiday confections this holiday season like peppermint bark in old-fashioned containers, traditional chocolates, and fudge. “The economy is bringing people back to times like the 50s when they spent more time at home with family,’ he says. Gourmet Divine in Muncie, IN, specializes in gourmet chocolate bark. Owner Cindy Hunt reports that chocolate raspberry and chocolate peppermint are the company’s best sellers for the holidays. The company’s coffee flavors won second place for new product release at the National Coffee Fest in Chicago in 2007. Fastachi, in Watertown, MA, wholesales nuts and other dried fruit products. Company president, Susan Etyemezian, says that their cranberry nut mix is a popular choice with their customers for the holidays. “It’s a healthy product but it feels like an indulgence,” she says. Fastachi is planning to introduce a new mix with chocolate. “Our logic behind it is that our quality roasted nuts with high quality chocolate will be an affordable indulgence,” says Etyemezian. On a side note, the company processes all of their peanut products, including peanut butter, in their own facility and the recent peanut product recall did not affect them.

Sweet, small goodies

Another effect of the economy? Simple is in. So are smaller sizes. Tanner says that to bring price points down companies will produce smaller sizes. If a supplier used to offer a quantity of 24 in their smallest box, they may now offer eight, he suggests.

Cary’s of Oregon produces a 1.3-ounce size that makes a great stocking stuffer and is a best seller for Christmas. The company also sells four-ounce tent boxes and six-ounce frosted gift bags with a satin ribbon that make inexpensive holiday and hostess gifts. Fastachi will be introducing a smaller size and a cost-effective new look to their wholesale line, going from silver bags to clear bags. “It will be simple and bring the costs down,” says Etyemezian. “We make and pack the mixes by hand. We’re all about quality and flavor and won’t change that,” says Etyemezian.

Kristine Ford, marketing director of Stirrings in Fall River, MA, says the company has adjusted pricing strategy across the board. The company wholesales a variety of cocktail mixes and other related products. “A full size mixer makes 11 cocktails and we have not changed the quality of our product.” When Stirrings’ gift sales do well, the company and their retailers both benefit. “Our last statistic is that 56% of current customers first received our mixers as a gift,” says Ford. “Therefore, we have put a lot of emphasis on expanding our gift line this year. Since studies have shown that there is an increase in home entertaining, we’ve developed our gift items accordingly.”

Dressed up for the holidays

When it comes to gifts that you stock in your store, packaging is an essential part of the equation: it has to be attractive and neatly packaged for gift giving. Stan Kieslev at Landrin USA says the company’s waferatto collection comes in a signature orchid blossom box design. “The unique, patent-pending box opens up like a blossoming flower when the lid is removed, and can also be used as a stylish serving bowl for the individually wrapped chocolates inside,” Kieslev says. For Christmas, the company plans on a red box with white accents.

Tanner says that while people do like to pick up gifts that speak “Christmas” or other holidays to them, companies and retailers are now a little hesitant about holiday packaging because it dates the product. Minnie Beasley’s Cookie Company’s gold and black packaging works year round for their almond lace cookies that won the NASFT Summer 2008 gold sofi outstanding cookie award. Company owner Harmon Canon says the company offers their signature almond lace cookies, known as a tuile style cookie, in a six-ounce gift bag or 16-ounce gift tin.

Over-packaging is out and simple is in, according to Tanner. Fastachi offers their nuts in duo and quarto gift trays that are made out of cherry wood. “The trays can be re-used for serving nuts or other purposes around the house such as a place to keep letters or mail, says Susan Etyemezian, president.

Themed gifts to go

Liz White, owner of Mason & Madison Gifts with Style in Middleton, MA says that it’s her job to think for her customers and this can increase her sales as well. “I look for ways to appeal to their senses and I’m always thinking about presentation or how each item will work with something else in the store,” she says. White knows that with the green movement, her customers don’t want to throw anything away. With this in mind, she will put together something like a pasta night gift basket. “I’ll take a colander and add pasta, sauce, a ladle, pesto, olives, and a dessert and wrap it up attractively.” Whether it’s given as a hostess or holiday gift, the recipient will remember the giver every time she uses the colander. Another top seller is to team together a cutting board with crackers and cheeses. For an extra special touch, she’ll have the cutting board monogrammed for her customers.

“Since many of our items are on the low end of the price scale, we often put together packages that customers can grab and go,” says Susan Reppert-Brill, owner of The Rosemary House in Mechanicsburg, PA. “For instance, we’ll make a ‘Dinner in a Box’ with salad dressing, soup mix, bread mix, tea and a cookie mix. We put it together in a decorative tin tied with a perky bow,” she says. “We have a staff person with the most beautiful handwriting so we are able to use hand-written signs to bring them to the attention of our customers,” says Reppert-Brill. “We consider visual merchandising our silent salesperson,” she adds. “As a small specialty shop we don’t have an overabundance of staff to verbally sell our wares. Also, many of our customers come in to relax and have some quiet time and enjoy the fragrant calm atmosphere of our shop. An appealing and organized display can work wonders for our sales.”

Pairing an item with even just one or two other products can help increase sales. Lynn Anderson of Caramoo says that their Caramel Crumble pairs great with coffee and tea and she suggests that her retailers display them together. Hunt at Gourmet Divine says that the suggested retail price of their two-ounce bars are $3 each. The bars come in nine flavors and Hunt recommends a buy one, get one free promotion to her retailers. “Tie three bars together for a gift under $10 and offer a buy one, get one free deal,” she suggests. “They sell well this way and make good hostess or teacher gifts during the holidays.” Sampling may also be the key to increasing holiday sales. “There is specific research that suggests that sampling will help close the deal,” says Gordon. Hunt at Gourmet Divine provides a free sample pack when a retailer purchases a case of her chocolates.

White at Mason & Madison says that if retailers don’t have samples for customers, they won’t move as much product. “When I sample a product, it always sells well,” she says. If a jar has a recipe on the back, White will prepare it and bring out the fondue kit and crackers and watch the sales soar.

As you know, the holidays will come every year regardless of the state of the economy. Get your store ready for the 2009 season keeping these tips in mind and both you and your customers will enjoy the rewards.

Sharon Anne Waldrop

Sharon Anne Waldrop resides with her family on a horse farm in northern Georgia. She writes about business and finance for national and trade magazines, and has contributed to Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and Hotel & Motel Management.

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