Promotional attention-grabbers force shoppers to run the grocery gantlet

Need a few things at the market? Grab a shopping cart - here's one with a chocolate chip ad on the front - and hang on tight. Where's the milk? Past the display tree of bargain brooms, under the video rebate offer. Watch out for those cardboard snack centers jutting into the aisles. And steer carefully around the dessert pans, free with a purchase of dessert mix from the display box across the aisle. One lane only around the three plastic stands of cold remedies. Oops, should have ducked under that 50-cents-off sign.

At last, on to the checkout. Got everything you came for? Do you even remember what you came for?

If grocery shopping these days seems like running an obstacle course, blame it on the battle for shelf space. With the costs of media advertising on the rise and retailers threatening to drop products that don't sell briskly, more and more manufacturers are using in-store promotions to grab shoppers' attention.

``Last year $10.8 billion was spent on POP [point-of-purchase promotion], so it's not a stepchild of advertising, by any means,'' says Lisa Eccles of the Point-of-Purchase Advertising Institute.

A study of consumer buying habits by the institute shows that 66 percent of buying decisions are made right there in the store. Sales of some types of products - such as beverages, canned fruit and vegetables, pet foods, and hosiery - more than double when promoted by some kind of store display.

``There is less reliance on traditional ads these days, because the consumer perceives little difference in products,'' explains Bob White, managing director of Ogilvy & Mather Promotions. ``Price is what moves the consumer.''

``We're living in a packaged-goods world of almost arbitrarily high list prices that for many products are rarely seen by the consumer,'' observes Bob Schmitz of Summa Group, a subsidiary of A.C. Nielsen Company. ``Products are so frequently promoted on a price basis that the consumer has become conditioned, ... and simply waits till the appropriate time and responds to the promotion.''

Always searching for a new gimmick, advertisers will soon air their messages on supermarket sound systems. Special programs by companies like POP Radio will treat shoppers to 12 minutes of advertising for every 48 minutes of music and entertainment, with a disc jockey as host.

The race for enticing promotional hooks has led some manufacturers literally to the race tracks. Sara Lee Corporation's Underalls and several Procter & Gamble brands, including Secret deodorant and Crisco Oil, are sponsoring automobile racers.

``A company can buy shelf space by becoming a sponsor for an event such as a race or festival, then extending it into the store in an end-of-aisle display,'' says Lesa Ukman, editor of Special Events Report.

Despite cluttered grocery aisles, retailers are making prodigious use of in-store promotional materials. ``We did a survey that showed retailers want POP merchandising,'' says Ms. Eccles. ``They want the stuff that moves the product out.''

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