Nonfoods Talk: Reshuffling the cards

The social expression department was once the star of the nonfoods category. Its current struggles at supermarkets highlight the problems of all GM/HBC segments.

By Seth Mendelson

What is the most disappointing nonfoods section at the supermarket? From this angle, the answer is an easy one. The social expression section has become somewhat of an afterthought at many grocery stores and this trend has not only hurt sales of such segments as greeting cards, gift wrap and floral items, but the status of the overall nonfoods category.

It has been a long and winding road down for the social expression category. Just a decade ago, the category was the talk of the food store and the mass market industry, competing with the fresh section for bragging rights as the signature department at many stores. Not only did a well-developed greeting card section anchor the nonfoods department, it often served as a focal point for the entire store. The reason was simple: Aggressive retailers, working with the various greeting card companies, were developing unique social expression departments that not only stood out but convinced consumers that they needed to shop for these products at the supermarket.

New items flooded stores, many of which were licensed products depicting the most popular characters in the marketplace. Retailers bought into the hyperbole, adding space to the category and often placing it in the midst of their entire format. Consumers also caught the bug, buying these items by the shopping cart full. Retailers and suppliers were making big money and there was a general sense of excitement in the industry that carried over to the rest of the nonfoods department, if not the entire store.

This enthusiasm and desire to be different has gone away. Now, it seems, just about everyone’s social expression department looks like the one down the street, except that the dominant supplier is based in either Cleveland or Kansas City, Mo.

There are many potential suspects for this general malaise in the social expression segment. At the top of the list is the Internet. As instant communications through email and text messaging became the norm, more consumers opted out of buying traditional greeting cards in favor of a digital message or an online greeting card.

A second was the dramatic increase in the posted retail price of greeting cards in the 1990s that drove price-points high enough that many consumers started to opt out of buying cards.

A third, and a bit more disconcerting, factor is the apparent decision by retailers and some greeting card suppliers to become more conservative with the category. There is some talk in the industry that as sales started to struggle the greeting card companies slowed the introduction of items. With less need for this valuable space, retailers started to give the floor space away to other, more profitable, sections. The vicious cycle had begun.

The negative momentum needs to be stopped. While greeting cards sales may not be the engine they once were, I can tell you from personal experience that giving a paper card holds a lot more sway with my family and friends than a digital greeting card. And, I can tell you that many people are still looking to the most convenient stores to pick up a quick, usually inexpensive gift, gift wrap or flowers for a birthday, anniversary or other special day.

Grocery stores need to turn the tide in the battle for traffic. Other merchants, most notably drugstore chains, continue to use the social expression segment to their advantage. The result has been an uptick in traffic and the ability to bring in more nonfoods sales.

Using a creative social expression section can make consumers take a second look at the supermarket, build sales in the category itself and show shoppers that the store is serious about their overall nonfoods section.

Seth Mendelson can be reached at 646-274-3507, or smendelson@groceryheadquarters.com.

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