Amusing themed treats and delicacies that overwhelm the senses and conjure up memories of holidays past.

Warming and inviting hot mulling spices; whimsically shaped marzipan; soothing yet stimulating winter herbal tea; novelty Santa- or dreidel-shaped cutout cookies and chocolates; eggnog—oh, the sales opportunities that arise during the holiday season.

Between family gatherings, grand dinners and cocktail parties, the entertaining possibilities are seemingly endless. With general goodwill being spread—and diets being tossed out the window—specialty retailers gear up for success with amusing themed treats and delicacies that overwhelm the senses, conjure up memories of holidays past, and ring up sales.

Products That Fit
“The whole nature of our business changes in the fourth quarter, says Alan Palmer, co-owner of Blue Apron Foods, purveyors of cheese, charcuterie and fine foods, with two locations in Brooklyn’s Park Slope. “It is driven by entertaining.

By June and July, buyers begin carefully planning holiday promotions, building their inventory, and hoping that smart marketing will help diminish stock by January 1. Retailers are challenged to wade through the onslaught and volume of holiday-themed merchandise to find products that fit their store’s image and customers’ needs.

“Too often, so much of the holiday-themed products get diluted into the mass market, explains Palmer. “Drug stores will carry panettone, for example, so I am challenged to find the better-quality panettone that is packaged attractively—but not overly packaged. The Euro-to-dollar exchange rate driving up costs can add to the challenge but, Palmer continues, “by focusing on high-quality items, customers don’t seem as wary about the price they pay, when compared to mass-market selection.

The holidays can quite literally take over a store as aisles brim with cookies, coffee, novelty chocolates, condiments and strategically placed shippers filled with holiday-themed items. At Jungle Jim’s International Market, a 300,000-square-foot eclectic specialty supermarket in Fairfield, Ohio, every department, from the deli to grocery, stocks up on holiday items. “Coffee gift packs, holiday salsas, teas, panettone, torrone and holiday cookie tins are always big sellers, says Paul Fischesser, one of three international buyers.

One year, Fischesser was surprised at the demand for a decorative cookie tin from Germany that retailed around $150. But, a centerpiece of Jungle Jim’s holiday decorations has been a 5-foot-tall gingerbread house, decorated with icing and Bahlsen holiday cookies. “The display attracts attention, which means we rarely have to deal with excess inventory after the holidays, he says.

The Appeal of Novelty Products
Novelty products are the workhorses of holiday merchandise, covering every age group. Fowler’s Gourmet, Durham, N.C., sells foiled chocolates or lollipops shaped like bells, Santa or presents that can be placed on a Christmas tree as ornaments as well as delight children as stocking stuffers. Generic shapes such as snowmen or specific Hanukah-themed candy also increase sales opportunities. “There are some lollipops that spin or light up, and those are truly a hit, says Co-Owner William Simpson. Other kid’s novelty items include piggy banks filled with candy. “This year we’re getting Peppy the Prancing Pup, he adds. “It is a puppy that turns on and prances in circles and barks, becoming a fun toy that lasts after the holiday season.

For an older set, themed chocolates are positioned as a decoration or hostess gift. “A wonderful seller from last year that we are bringing back is the Long Grove Holiday Wish Ornaments, continues Simpson. “Joy, “Noel, “Cheer, and ‘Wish are written on 3-inch chocolate disks packaged in a clear cellophane bag with a ribbon and holly. Snack-filled novelties can serve a similar purpose. Savannah, Ga.’s Byrd Cookie Company has designed festively decorated cookie-filled tin ornaments that double as gifts or stocking stuffers.

Seasonal themed items such as holiday teas and cocoa are guaranteed sellers when the temperature drops. “We sell a bunch of Taylor’s of Harrogate Spiced Christmas Tea, and the Bellagio Holiday Spice Cocoa, explains Simpson. “This year, we’ve added Harney & Sons Holiday Tea and White Christmas Tea. We’re also offering a new mulling spice that’s packaged in a clear acetate box so that you can see the beautiful spices.

From Novelty to Everyday
Themed items often capture attention, but the holiday season—when customers are more willing to indulge in purchases they might not otherwise make—is an opportunity for merchants to showcase all that they offer, from the novelty to the everyday. The season yields specially created or packaged lines from the vast majority of suppliers, such as limited-edition mint chutney, olive oils, flavored coffee gift packs, and snack tins. Blue Apron’s Palmer keeps an eye towards those ingredients his customers will need to prepare their holiday meals. To that end, puréed sweetened chestnuts and roasted chestnuts are brought in for vegetable side dishes or stuffing. Cranberries are also essential, as are various chutneys and sauces.

“Luxury items drive business at that time of the year, adds Palmer. “Cheese, pâtés and air-dried meats explode during the holidays. Throughout the year, only one type of foie gras may be available at Blue Apron, but during the holidays, Palmer will have four different kinds to accommodate curious customers. The same is true of caviar and items such as sturgeon or hand-sliced salmon.

“When people entertain they are looking for more sophisticated products than they might otherwise purchase, he says. “They buy food to impress their guests. I’m often shocked by what they’ll spend on items they use for entertaining—they want the best.

Building on Tradition
With the traditions that surround the holidays, international specialties are often the biggest sellers. “The holidays bring out the desire for special foods from every culture, says Chef Michaelangelo (Mick) Rosacci of Tony’s Meats & Specialty Foods, purveyors of specialty and imported products with five locations and one wine shop in Colorado. Selections include specialty game, smoked pork loins, Swedish potato sausage and Polish sausage.

“International classics are the most important part of family holidays, he continues. Whether it is the ingredients to make a Hanukah dinner, Swedish flat bread, or condiments such as mint sauces and chutneys, everyone wants those items that remind them of family traditions. “This is the time when people are most likely to prepare extravagant meals, or create what mom or grandmother used to, says Rosacci. “For that reason we like to push old-world specialties.

Palmer notes, “People come in looking for specific traditional holiday items. We sell a lot of candied chestnuts, candied fruit peels, marzipan pigs and fruits, pistachio marzipan, torrone, chocolate-covered figs and fig chutneys. Though some of the international specialties can be mediocre sellers, “it is an accessory to the business you must have, especially when you have a customer base that has a European background, he adds.

Rosacci agrees, “Some of the traditional products from Europe are almost token items. But if two or three Italian ladies come in looking for something, it is important to have the product and please the customers.

The key to success in holiday purchasing and promoting is to know the customer base. Buyers should focus on different ethnic traditions, whether it is German lebkuchen, Italian torrone, Swedish lefse, or treats for a Hanukah celebration. “Hanukah has become a huge holiday for us, says Palmer. “We make a blue-and-white statement in both stores and carry a lot of items for its considerable gift-giving potential.

Maintaining the Wow Factor Year-Round
Even with the additional time, money, and labor costs involved in seeking out uncommon, themed and traditional holiday fare, the effort is a necessary part of the specialty food business. It’s a time that provides retailers with multiple opportunities to “wow customers with special offerings and entertaining solutions. And, customers that are dazzled by their experience during the holiday season will be more likely to frequent the store throughout the rest of the year.

Laura Everage is a freelance writer specializing in food and beverages and was former managing editor of The Gourmet Retailer.