Nonfoods Talk: Back from the crypt

Seeking to build sales and profits, grocery retailers may want to start expanding some long-dormant categories.

It may be time for grocery retailers to start looking at several nonfoods categories many have previously given up for dead over the last decade or so.

At the forefront of this list is the booming (relatively speaking, that is) housewares category, a market that despite this lingering recession continues to baffle the experts in terms of sales growth and profits for both retailers and suppliers.

As we have discovered from the past three economic downturns, including the current one now closing in on its fourth year, consumers do not necessarily stop spending during tough times. What they do instead is change their shopping habits and buying patterns.

Simply put, practical products become more popular while those little indulgences take a back seat for the time being.

No channel has benefited from this trend more than the supermarket industry as many consumers forego a dinner out for a home-cooked meal that is often purchased at the local grocery store—and for a huge savings.

The housewares category has grabbed on to these coattails. As consumers look to save money and eat at home more often, they are that much more likely to purchase the items necessary to prepare these meals, as well as a couple of products that may just make them feel better about themselves as they stay shuttered at home.

Now it is time for the supermarket industry to get its fair share of these sales. Most grocery stores have always carried a healthy assortment of kitchenware and other basic housewares items. But many of these same retailers have walked away from the more expensive, more profitable and, yes, the more complex portion of the housewares segment that appears to be doing quite well at other retail outlets.

These items include the basics like toaster ovens, glassware and cookware as well as some more interesting items like wine coolers, cleaning tools and microwave ovens and accessories. Whatever is added, it is extremely important that grocery merchants make the consumer aware that they have expanded their assortment in the housewares category with items that make perfect sense and items that may be a little bit of a splurge.

A number of suppliers have made it clear that they plan to unleash a barrage of items designed specifically at the supermarket at this year’s International Housewares Show in Chicago in March. “The traffic numbers are simply too great to ignore and the relationship between food and housewares is too intertwined,” says the vice president of marketing for a housewares and tabletop company who promises a line of items specifically for food stores at the show.

Of course, housewares is not the only category that needs to be re-examined. There is growing evidence that consumers are more open to purchasing certain types of toys at the supermarket. Some supermarket retailers are playing with the idea of adding video games and dolls to their general merchandise mix. Others are going so far as to get back into the board game business, a category that has seen somewhat of a resurgence as suppliers introduce a number of culturally savvy products.

Some observers say that even the moribund hardware category could help grocery stores register more sales and profits. The key here, like these other categories, is making sure that the right items, at the right price points, are carried and they are placed in a visible and logical location.

Going back in time and revisiting certain general merchandise categories could result in more sales and profits for the supermarket industry. It will also ensure that the grocery retailer says ahead of the times, even it means taking a few steps back to get there.

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