In today’s retail grocery world, brick-and-mortar stores need to work harder than ever to make sure their customers have a good reason to take the time and effort to walk through their doors.

We hear a lot today about how “experiences” are one of the key ways of doing this — engaging shoppers’ senses, teaching them something, interacting, creating a memory that will keep them coming back.

One of the best ways to create those experiences is through seasonal promotions, which, if done right, tap into consumers’ nostalgia and provide new twists on traditional favorites.  

Take San Diego-based retail chain Barons.

“We’ll time promotions with the season whenever we can,” says Rachel Shemirani, the company’s senior vice president. “For example, we have these fantastic apple and sweet potato butters that are packaged in reusable drinking glasses. They’re perfect to serve during the holidays and make great gifts.”

Another seasonal promotion that’s always a huge hit for Barons is its pumpkin patch in October. Each store has a giant pumpkin that named Mr. Jack. Customers are encouraged to guess the pumpkin’s weight, and the closest guess wins Mr. Jack and can take him home the week before Halloween.

“We get a lot of entries, so we know our customers love this contest,” Shemirani says. “Finally, we of course do a big display of holiday items, gifts, cookies, etc. right before Thanksgiving. This is a fun way for the managers to use their creativity in merchandising.”

That said, Barons doesn’t subscribe to the belief that you need a seasonal promotion to draw people into brick-and-mortar stores.

“The key is to create an exciting and engaging customer experience year-round, from friendly and sincere customer service to sampling delicious food at our demo station, to our grab n’ go soup, salad and hot food bars,” Shemirani says.

One of the keys to Barons’ customer experience is the company’s “10-minute shopping experience” through a limited but exciting product selection.

“Our customers are busier than ever, and we answer the question ‘What am I going to have for dinner tonight?’ as soon as they step into the store,” Shemirani says.

In addition to its seasonal promotions, Barons likes to create engaging displays throughout the year, Shemirani says. Often it’s new products the company loves and wants to introduce to its customers. And if the timing is right to tie it in with a seasonal promotion, all the better.


More opportunities — and challenges

It’s very important to promote the seasonal changes due to consumers’ changing tastes, which are a blend of needs and wants, says Mike Tilden, director of deli and bakery for Kansas City, Kansas-based Balls Food Stores Inc., which operates the Price Chopper and Hen House banners.

“The fall to winter shift means more need for home cooked meals that are heartier and sustaining,” Tilden says. “We also have the holiday shift that brings out more celebratory occasions, which means more spending on items reserved for special occasions.”

It’s a critical and challenging time for retailers, Tilden says, because there are more opportunities to maximize sales in every department — but it’s also fleeting and comes with risks, due to the seasonality of certain items only offered at that time.

During the holidays, when everyone is busy shopping for gifts online, it also often extends to online shopping for groceries. Price Chopper and Hen House both see a spike in online sales then, Tilden says.

That said, the vast majority of shoppers still want to shop instore, even with the added time crunch that comes with the holidays.

“It’s still impossible for most consumers to replace going to the store and seeing and buying with their own eyes when it comes to food,” Tilden says. “Food for many is a powerful personal experience, from the time it’s hand selected to its preparation and finally its consumption. And that can’t be replaced b online shopping.”


Keeping the promotions going in all seasons

Barons also lures customers into its stores through its monthly “#1 Pleasant Surprise” program.

Every month, Barons create a large instore display of that month’s pleasant surprise, i.e. a new and maybe unique product consumers may not have seen yet.

The promotion features signage, passive demos of the product next to the display (when applicable) and a contest to win the pleasant surprise product at the end of the month.

“This is very successful for us,” Shemirani says. “We’re currently working on the pleasant surprise calendar now.”

Because Barons stores are in the 15,000 to 18,000 square foot range,  the retailer has to be very choosy about its displays and merchandising.

“We like to swap things out pretty quickly,” Shemirani says. “The Pleasant Surprise promotions do really well. They’re born out of, ‘What new product do we love that nobody really knows about?’ And they’re very successful — sales typically go up 300% to 400%.”


Charcuterie in time for the holidays

Barons also recently created its “Barons Board,” which includes a section of the store filled with recommendations for building the perfect charcuterie board.

“It was Instagram-inspired,” Shemirani says of the Barons Board. “We started noticing this trend on social media, especially Instagram, of people doing these charcuterie boards, or ‘grazing boards.’ People were going crazy for them.”

Barons’ social media manager kept texting Shemirani with the same basic message: Barons was tailor-made to create such boards. Among the reasons: an antipasto bar featuring unique olives, stuffed peppers, a recently expanded gourmet cheese offer, wines, specialty crackers, excellent charcuterie options, bulk nuts, local fruits.

“It was like, ‘Oh, yeah, this a natural thing for us,’” Shemirani says. “It’s all about convenience, and creating engaging experiences.”

The Barons Board starts with a trough of ice featuring cheeses, packaged charcuterie and olives. Around that are placed fresh baguettes, preserves, bulk nuts, wine and crackers.

The initial Barons Board was timed to coincide with the winter holidays. In January, staff will take them down and assess what worked and what didn’t. It could become a permanent fixture in Barons stores, but the next step will be to roll out a different version of it for Easter (no apple butter, e.g.).

“It’s another holiday where I think people can do something that’s really easy (building their own boards sourced from items on a Barons Board) but also show-stopping,” Shemirani says. “The holidays are really a time to make your taste buds dance. This is the time to indulge. We like to have fun with it. The great thing about the boards is we can put them out at any time and they’ll be a hit — people love them.”

Price Chopper and Hen house delis offer a wide variety of holiday-themed prepared dinners, Tilden says. And the company’s famous Tippins pies, popular year-round, are enormous hits throughout the holidays.

Balls Foods focuses on signature items and promotes them heavily both in both printed ads and via social media, Tilden says.  Those efforts are supplemented with instore displays, themed POS and live demos. 

“We also put out a Winter magazine that promotes not only our signature items but also our suppliers and items that are driven by being local, community responsible, love for family and healthy eating lifestyles,” he adds. “We also offer many recipes that are cool and fun, and we collaborate with Jasper Mirabile, an incredible local chef and food expert who helps us pull it all together.”

Once its winter holiday promotions are over, Balls focuses on meeting the demand among its customers to adopt healthier eating habits, which at Price Chopper and Hen House means fresh, better for you choices with little splurges sprinkled throughout  (e.g. Valentine’s Day, St Patrick’s Day and Mardi Gras).