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FEATURE: The learning curve

It's enough to make even the biggest high school senior cry. Even though there's at least another two months left of the school year -- probably more when all of those snow days are factored in -- retailers and manufactures are already plotting how they're going to make all that additional money off school-age kids and their parents come fall. But to get extra credit on back-to-school merchandising, you have to think ahead.

That's why manufacturers have put on their thinking caps early to devise new ways to target the back-to-school business. "Back-to-school is very important to us, and we do a big back-to-school promotion," says Matt Hall, v.p., communications at Sara Lee Bakery Group in St. Louis. "We typically do a lot of back-to-school work with our Iron Kids brand, and we typically include coupons, special displays, and recipes." He adds that planning starts in March.

Diamond of California is scoring walnut brownie points by working closely with the federal government and school lunch programs to build interest in its nut products. "About five years ago we started working closely with the USDA to educate them about nuts and to try to encourage the use of nuts in the school feeding program," says Michael Mendes, president and c.e.o. of Diamond of California in Pleasanton, Calif. "We're pleased to report that this past year the walnut industry sold over 10 million pounds of walnuts to the school lunch program."

Diamond is doing additional work with local school boards. "We've got a small regional program that we're doing in Central California with a number of districts where we're having our glazed nuts placed in lunches in a regional test, and it's being very well received," Mendes says. "We think there's been some real cachet. Part of the issue has just been educating the government on the new health pyramid, on which nuts are placed rather prominently."

This fall Diamond will likely be promoting its On-The-Go Canisters and resealable pouches of glazed and salted nuts. "Our container is portable, the lid pops up, it's easy to carry in a backpack, and it can replace a candy, chip, or some other snack that doesn't have the health connotation that nuts do," notes Michael Stewart, v.p. of U.S. retail sales at Diamond.

Rice is another healthy product that will become a greater presence in lunchboxes in September, at least if Masuya has its way. For the past four years Masuya has imported a line of natural Rice Sembei Snacks from Japan, using a recipe dating back to 806 A.D. The snacks are available in four flavors and contain less than 50 percent of the fat found in potato chips, tortilla chips, and popcorn. "In the past we haven't done a lot with back-to-school, but we have our new one-ounce bags we're just launching and giving out as samples now, which would be perfect for lunches," says Brian R. Elliot, sales and marketing manager at Masuya (USA) Inc. in Sacramento, Calif.

Elliot is researching how Masuya's ingredient and nutrition profile fits in with new regulations that California has adopted for snacks to be sold in its schools. "Masuya looks like an item that we can qualify to sell in the schools, either in the cafeterias or vending machines," he says. "It looks like we would meet the state's profile for being all natural, with no hydrogenated oils, and baked and not fried."

Look for other healthy snacks also to be advertised more heavily for back-to-school. Take the new Munchies Kids Mix from Frito-Lay, for example. This sure winner was actually developed by kids. Children will love it because it contains Cheetos Asteroids Snacks, Cap'n Crunch original minis, Rold Gold Classic Style Tiny Twists Pretzels, bite-size Doritos Nacho Cheesier Tortilla Chips, Smartfood Reduced Fat White Cheddar Popcorn, and mini choco buttons. Moms will love Munchies Kids Mix because it's fortified with eight essential vitamins and minerals, and has been classified as a Cooper Class I snack (low in fat, saturated fat, sugar, and sodium, with zero grams of trans fats).

"This is our first fortified product and also marks the first time we've had a Quaker product [Cap'n Crunch] included in a Frito-Lay product," says Jared Dougherty, a spokesman for Frito-Lay in Plano, Texas. Both Frito-Lay and Quaker Oats are units of Pepsi.

Wise Foods typically tries to include an educational angle in its back-to-school merchandising programs. Last year it teamed with National Geographic to offer in Wise products an assortment of maps of the world, dinosaurs of North America, and the universe. "We like to do something that will be beneficial to both the mom and the child," says Kevin Croen, product manager, related brands in the Carlstadt, N.J. office of the Kennesaw, Ga.-based company.

Wise Foods wisely uses the back-to-school period to support new products that were launched during the year. This fall look for a big promotion centering on its new Mac 'N Cheese Flavored Cheez Doodles, a macaroni-and-cheese-flavored and -shaped corn snack. "This is an item that we feel will definitely be around for a long while, so we're going to be supporting it throughout the year, including back-to-school," Croen says.

"We're looking to do innovative products and promotions that will set us apart from other national and regional snack food manufacturers," he explains. "We're not just doing products, but also looking for promotions that will support us. We feel the back-to-school period is one of the most important periods of the year, because kids are going back to school and mothers are starting to put snacks into their lunchboxes again, so it's another way to invigorate the business."

Catch the school bus

Folks in the snack cake business agree. "The back-to-school merchandising program is a key period for Hostess," says Mike Redd, v.p., cake marketing at Interstate Bakeries Corp. in Kansas City, Mo. "We've got some new display materials that we're developing with different graphic materials from what we've had in the past. That will put a little more excitement into it, and beyond that we'll probably do some in-pack couponing during that time frame. We're going to put some spin on it this year to give it an increased focus." One promotion, still in development, will involve the company's flagship Twinkies snack cakes, which have been a lunchbox staple for almost three-quarters of a century.

JTM Foods is looking for both retailers and consumers to get on board its Back to School Bus promotion. The program is built around a cardboard shipper with school bus graphics that holds either a dozen assorted JJ's Snack Pies or a dozen JJ's Gold Fingers, which are golden creme-filled sponge cakes. To further drive home the back-to-school image, Gold Fingers have pencil graphics on their cellophane wrappers. "We launched these last year, but back-to-school was already in the works, so this will be our first full year of using them as a back-to-school promotion," says Rachelle McFeely, sales administrator at JTM Foods, Inc. in Erie, Pa.

JTM's products are distributed nationally, and the company offers a punch-out display case that further builds on the back-to-school image. "Retailers can order our back-to-school graphics any time of the year, but we push more for September, and then again in January," McFeely says.

Tasty Baking will likely be touting its products, including Tasty Kookies, and new packaging when back-to-school rolls around.

Tasty Kookies are available in chocolate chip and toffee chip flavors, and come in lunchbox-convenient 1.5-ounce and 3.5-ounce bags that retail for 50 cents and 99 cents, respectively, and a six-count multipack of 1.5-ounce bags and a 12-ounce tub, both of which retail for $2.99. "They differ from other cookies on the market, because of their thin and crispy texture, great flavor, and quality ingredients," says Monica Christ, director of marketing at Tasty Baking Co. in Philadelphia. "They're bite-size and come in portable bags, so kids can enjoy them on the go."

Summer school

Last month Tasty changed the packaging on its iconic flagship Tastykake line in favor of eye-catching photography. In addition, the company has revamped its Buttercream Iced and Chocolate Iced Cream-Filled Chocolate Cupcakes and Cream-Filled Koffee Kake Cupcakes to include 50 percent more cream filling.

"These initiatives mark the beginning of our product innovation efforts for this year," says Vince Melchiorre, senior v.p. and c.m.o. New products will be launched throughout the year, including for the back-to-school season.

One big extra-credit question remains, however: When exactly does the back-to-school season begin? That's a question that really doesn't have a right or wrong answer. "The start of back-to-school varies so much," IBC's Redd says. "It's kind of determined by the retailers. Not only do you have different school systems that start at different times in different parts of the country, but the retailers will sometimes start it as early as late July, and it can work its way through mid-September."

In that case, given the current state of the retail industry, when Christmas decorations go up before Halloween, don't be surprised to see back-to-school displays lining the shelves the last week of June, much to the chagrin of schoolkids everywhere.
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