The final three months of the calendar year are prime time for party trays.

Thanksgiving gatherings, Christmas festivities, tailgate parties, homecomings and more are perfect opportunities to push these trays, but the way consumers are shopping for them might be changing.

“We’re seeing more and more shoppers who don’t want to pre-order their party trays,” says Carrie Walters, corporate chef and culinary director for Ohio-based Dorothy Lane Market. “So for the fourth quarter, a couple of our delis are taking the lead. Instead of waiting for the orders to come up, we’re actually starting to produce some of our top sellers and have them ready for grab-and-go shopping.”

Dorothy Lane has already tried the approach for some Ohio State football weekends and experienced success.

“The grab-and-go, non-order type of thing really helped us sell,” Walters says. “It’s amazing that some of our customers don’t know that we do all that stuff, even though the catalog and the magazine are right there, and the pictures are right there. I think it helps our sales by actually showing what we can do.”

The biggest challenge to this approach is space, Walters says. There’s not always enough room to bring out a variety of pre-made party trays to display.

That might mean bringing out a special case and putting it in the middle of the foyer for Super Bowl season or right before Christmas. That means shoppers immediately see the options when they walk into the store. Walters says it’s worth the extra hassle.

 “I think the whole concept of people grabbing and going is a big trend for us,” she says. “They don’t want to order it, they just want to buy it. In general, a lot of retailers haven’t been doing that because of the shrink. It’s the attitude of ‘If I’m going to make all these trays with nobody ordering them, I’m going to be stuck with it all.’”

To fight that, Dorothy Lane has tested the water on a number of offerings on big weekends like homecomings. The retailers will offer one or two of the pre-made options to see if consumers bite.

“I’ve been here for a while and I can remember trying this 10 or 12 years ago and being stuck with these trays when they weren’t purchased,” Walters says. “I think the consumer is changing now.”

Packaging matters …

Sarah Korwek, product manager for Inline Plastics, says she has seen the same trend popping up on the supplier side of the business.

“We’re seeing that shoppers don’t always want to call ahead or go online and plan out a party tray. They want options ready for the taking when they make a quick stop at the supermarket,” she says. “Retailers are meeting these demands by offering a variety of cut fruits and veggies, nuts, or meats and cheeses as healthy party food options that can be quickly selected from retail shelves and look great going straight to the serving table upon arrival at the event.”

That can put even more pressure on retailers and suppliers to not only provide quality, attractive food presentations, but to also offer it in a sturdy, good-looking package.

“The tray needs to be able to hold up to the weight of the prepared food items, offer a variety of size options, and seal securely so leaks are not a concern when transporting to and from the party location,” Korwek says. “We currently offer a variety of different party platter size options to meet individual processor and retailer needs, all made of durable PET material, with a secure perimeter sealing technology.”

Korwek points out that Inline’s party platters come standard with an industry-leading perimeter sealing technology. It is specifically designed to both increase leak resistance and extend the freshness of the foods packaged inside, both key concerns for consumers when purchasing and transporting a party platter.

Walters says some suppliers have tried to sell Dorothy Lane on football-shaped packaging for tailgate platters, or other holiday-themed packaging for the rest of the season.

“That’s really not the look we want,” Walters says. “We want people, when they show up to a party, to be proud of the food they’re bringing and not make it look like it’s from Costco.”

That higher-end look, she says, can make consumers want to wash the platter and re-use them, or even leave them behind for the party host to enjoy and use later.

“A couple of our trays actually look like platters I have at home. They’re more square or oblong and more modern. They’re black or white with a clearer case on top,” Walters says. “It’s a nicer look when you’re going to somebody’s house and you’re bringing an appetizer. It’s an upgraded package that you’re not going to be embarrassed to sit down on the table in between plates and platters.”

The clear case is key, says Korwek.

“First and foremost, the packaging needs to be clear, so the food is highly visible,” she says. “Consumers want to see their food items, verifying the items are fresh. The material Inline Plastics uses is definitely one of our main strengths, as it offers unparalleled clarity. The platters should also stack easily and securely, to maximize shelf space, which our party trays are designed to do. Lastly, they should be functional and appealing for consumers to eat directly out of the packaging, eliminating the need to transfer the foods from the packaging to another serving container.”

… and so does the food

The food items in these party trays haven’t necessarily changed that much in recent years, Walters says, but the quality has.

Football parties, for example, still attract a lot of shoppers looking for chicken tenders or cocktail meatballs. But if they’re shopping their local supermarket prepared foods department, they likely don’t want something cheap and low-quality.

“It’s not the same product as driving through a Chick-fil-A and getting chicken tenders,” Walters says. “And meatballs are another great example. A lot of home cooks buy the bag of frozen meatballs and the jug of sauce and put it in their crock pot and it’s done. I think that time has come and gone.”

Dorothy Lane also sells a lot more egg rolls and spring rolls during football season, Walters says. And items like large pumpernickel bread bowls filled with spinach and artichoke dip — once a fancier holiday staple — is now a tailgate favorite.

As for holiday options, fruit and vegetable trays are still huge, but not always in the same way as they were in the past.

“For example, we have a skewered salad caprese that just looks fancier,” Walters says. “The same with European cheese trays. You can just show up and open a bottle of wine.”