Everybody's Irish on St. Patrick's

Although not in a league with Valentine's Day, the Irish celebration is becoming a commercial holiday in ways that go far beyond green beer.

March 16, 2004|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

McCormick & Schmick is known most days for its seafood, but this time of year its menu more resembles that of an Irish pub.

In celebration of St. Patrick's Day tomorrow, the Inner Harbor restaurant brings in Irish steppers and adds corned beef and cabbage, shepherd's pie, bangers and mash, and mussels steamed in Guinness beer to the menu.

"In our company, St. Patrick's Day has become like a national holiday," general manager Kevin Bonner said.

Once celebrated most widely in Irish enclaves such as Boston, St. Patrick's Day is becoming more mainstream - and more commercial. Far beyond green bagels and beer, retailers as varied as Old Navy and Office Depot are using the occasion to spur sales during a lull in the calendar, between holidays with more historic sales ties.

"St. Patrick's Day has always been a popular holiday but it hasn't always been a retail holiday," said Ellen Tolley, a spokeswoman with the National Retail Federation in Washington. "In the last several years, we've seen an increase in St. Patrick's Day merchandise, from green plastic hats to traditional Irish music and cookbooks. We've seen a lot of momentum in the last couple of years building up toward St. Patrick's Day."

Driving the interest, retailers said, are increasing numbers of non-Irish celebrating the holiday. About 110 million U.S. consumers will celebrate St. Patrick's Day this year by doing such things as wearing green, cooking traditional Irish dishes or dining at an Irish pub. Nearly 20 million will decorate their homes or offices with St. Patrick's Day merchandise, according to the federation.

Evidence of the holiday's retail emergence is mostly anecdotal, though: The major industry groups haven't traced St. Patrick's sales as they have major sales holidays such as Christmas.

"Valentine's Day is over and Easter hasn't arrived, so it's a good time to promote a holiday in between," said James Lowry, a retail marketing professor at Ball State University in Indiana. "Retailers are also trying to loosen the purse strings of consumers a little more. Consumers have been a little tight with their wallets because of the recession and all."

Old Navy Inc., the hip clothier owned by Gap Inc., is selling St. Patrick's Day T-shirts, hoping to duplicate some of its success during recent summers selling a line of shirts specifically for July Fourth. Guinness USA Inc., which imports the dark porter brew made in Ireland, began airing commercials months ago to spur sales for the holiday. And Vermont-based Bruegger's Bagels, which began selling green bagels at its Pittsburgh location a decade ago, has slowly expanded into other markets as the concept became a hit.

"St. Patrick's Day is becoming a big deal," said Christine Bryan, director of marketing for Bruegger's Corp. "It's a holiday that gives people a reason to go out and have a good time."

Office Depot, meanwhile, is taking an unusual tack on the holiday's color scheme by using it to encourage customers to buy recycled products. "In our case, we use the holiday as an opportunity because of its association with green," said Tyler Elm, Office Depot director of environmental affairs.

Kansas City-based Hallmark Cards has produced St. Patrick's cards for decades, but now offers 100 varieties. American Greetings, its Cleveland-based competitor, ranks St. Patrick's Day as its ninth most popular selling day. Valentine's Day and Mother's Day rank first and second, spokeswoman Angela Thompson said.

No one expects St. Patrick's Day to produce sales numbers to rival those of Christmas or Mother's Day because it's not known as a day for exchanging gifts. "Retailers have to be creative because if you buy a Shamrock flag one year you're not going to buy another one the next year," Tolley said.

On York Road in Anneslie, The Party City decoration store has sold nearly $6,000 worth of St. Patrick's merchandise since December. Halloween, the granddaddy of dress-up holidays, remains the store's biggest selling occasion, manager Derek McGowan said.

St. Patrick's commercial potential has yet to catch on in all parts of the country, however. Hallmark's best sales are still in Boston, with its large concentration of Irish-Americans and where one of the first American celebrations was held in 1737. The Irish have observed the day as a religious holiday for many, many centuries, in honor of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.

Eugene Fram, a marketing professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, noted that in his upstate New York town 75,000 people turned out for last weekend's St. Patrick's Day Parade. But the local newspaper carried only three St. Patrick's related ads Saturday and Sunday, he said.

At places such as McCormick & Schmick, though, the day keeps getting bigger.

"Every year people learn we're going to have some kind of event here and more people come," Bonner said. "Everybody is Irish on St. Patrick's Day."

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