Carrie Walters, corporate chef for Ohio’s Dorothy Lane Market, recalls how seasonal merchandising decisions were made just a few years ago.

“It used to be as simple as ‘Oh we’ve got National Donut Day coming up, so let’s do something with our donuts,’” says Walters, who oversees Dorothy Lane Market’s extensive and locally based line of prepared foods. “There wasn’t any storytelling or any real thought put into it. It’s a lot different these days.”

That’s because perimeter shoppers are a lot different these days. They’re no longer showing up for just deli meat and cheese to stock up for the week. They want to be inspired. They want new ideas and easy decisions on what to have for dinner that night or the next.

“You have to be on the same page and have a solid plan for how you’re going to tie things together and present them,” Walters says. “It’s part of the experience.”

Working together

Building a successful seasonal merchandising plan in the deli and prepared foods department takes a team effort. Today’s supermarket departments can’t fully succeed by themselves.

Portland, Oregon-based New Seasons Market takes advantage of cross-merchandising its prepared foods in aisle end cap displays, mobile refrigerator units and in its Solution Counter, where items are demonstrated and displayed.

“We love to collaborate with other fresh perimeter teams,” says Tracy Hardin, New Seasons’ director of merchandising. “Cross-merchandising can be a challenge with perishable items, but mobile refrigerated units and ice bins are really effective tools to allow staff to merchandise Grab & Go products in high-traffic areas like the checkout, making the shopping experience easier for the customer, while maximizing every shopping trip and transaction.”

Getting all of your perimeter departments to work together — and for the greater good instead of their own best interests — may not always be the easiest task.

“That’s a battle that everyone has to deal with and I feel like we’ve gotten much better as a company, although we can still get better,” Walters says.

Take the housewares department for example, she says. Long viewed a bit like “the red-headed stepchild of the store,” because it typically does not bring in the revenue the other departments do, it sometimes presents a dilemma when cross-merchandising. Walters says a common attempt in years past might include just throwing some potato peelers next to the potatoes.

“But that doesn’t help tell a story,” she says. “We’ve worked really hard with getting housewares more involved with whatever is happening on the perimeter. It kind of helps flesh out the displays and makes it look more cohesive.”

Dorothy Lane gets ideas from other regional retailers, like Metropolitan Market, as part of a share group.

New Seasons Market utilizes interdepartmental cooperation when it’s planning seasonal merchandising opportunities. For example, when the produce team gets its selection of apples in the fall, that turns into seasonal apple products in the deli and bakery.

“We get to turn seasonally abundant ingredients into exciting recipes,” says Hardin. “We create a wide variety of recipes utilizing apples and we often engage with the chefs in our stores and our central kitchen to help contribute recipes and ideas. Sometimes we run internal contests around innovation. It’s all extremely rewarding and helps celebrate not only the local ingredients, but the talent of our people.”

Communication is key

The best way to ensure successful interdepartmental cooperation in seasonal merchandising isn’t complicated. It just might take a little time out of your schedule every other week or so.

“We have to meet every other week,” Walters says. “We have a merchandising meeting with the marketing team, all the department directors, and we sit sown with a calendar and discuss everything. What’s on sale, what’s going on seasonally, who’s got what going on. We brainstorm together and leave that meeting, ideally, with a clear idea of what we’re doing and promoting.”

That inter-departmental communication in turn boosts the store’s communication with its customers. “We plan that out and that merchandising meeting kind of helps forecast a month’s worth of what’s going on,” Walters says.

That helps Dorothy Lane’s marketing department send out a Fresh News email blast to approximately 16,000 shoppers who carry the company’s loyalty card. The newsletter showcases what’s new that week, whether it’s a new product, a new cooking class or an announcement that seasonal chestnuts are now in the store.

“We’re telling them, ‘Hey, come on in this week and see what all’s going on and what has changed even from just last week,” Walters says.

That seasonal storytelling can be expanded upon. Walters writes a weekly blog that’s attached to the newsletter. Ideally, she says, everything is tied together and a theme runs throughout all of the consumer-facing materials.

“I can randomly write whatever I want, but if I’m smart, I’ll find out from that meeting what’s going on and I can share a recipe or memory that ties together,” Walters says. “Then it presents the look that we’re all talking about the same thing and we’re all on the same page. It’s not all this random stuff like ‘Ribeye steaks are on sale, plus we’re roasting chestnuts!’”

Local is the new seasonal

When planning on seasonal merchandising directions, it might be best to look at what your local suppliers are telling you.

“At New Seasons Market we are focused on quality and local products,” Hardin says. “At key times throughout the year we have tremendous success around holidays and other food-focused events, such as game days or Father’s Day BBQs, as well as seasonally abundant produce or fish.”

What New Season’s local growers and suppliers are offering greatly shapes what the company merchandises in its prepared foods departments. That turns into themes that run throughout the perimeter.

“This time of year is also particularly exciting for merchandising within and outside of the department, creating program themes in our hot bar, Grab & Go, Chef’s Case and our Made to Order program,” Hardin says.

Dorothy Lane now runs its own Community Supported Agriculture program and takes cues from the ripening of local produce, broadcast when the first asparagus or artichokes are available.

That then turns into merchandising cues for other departments. When swiss chard is in season, for example, shoppers are greeted at the display with recipe ideas and ways to incorporate dishes from the prepared department.

“It helps create a sort of relationship with the customer and the local food,” Walters says.

That relationship is expanded upon with an annual dinner, hosted by Dorothy Lane. Shoppers can buy tickets for the family style dinner, while the company’s local farming partners are offered a seat for free.

“Everyone sits together, and all the food comes out on a big platter and everyone shares all this food,” Walters says. “The farmers get to know one another, and our customers get to know who is growing their potatoes or corn or asparagus. It’s kind of cool and it’s getting more and more popular.”