Retailers reveal how they’re preparing for Christmas 2023

15 October 2023, 10:00 AM
  • Fine food stores and farm shops across the UK are busy hanging their decorations, and creating alluring displays, ready for the Christmas rush. Speciality Food finds out what makes them tick, and shares their advice and inspiration
Retailers reveal how they’re preparing for Christmas 2023

The festive season is incredibly exciting for the fine food world, with loads of opportunities for independents to maximise sales. Speciality Food speaks to retailers across the UK, who share their advice and expertise around how to capitalise on this time of year.

7 ways to crack Christmas in 2023

Food consultant Edward Berry of The Flying Fork has plenty of sage advice to share with retailers this season

1. Repetition appeals to shoppers. This is not a season for a great deal of innovation. In my experience, keep it traditional, bring in colour, and look for products customers have regularly bought and loved.

2. Ensure you have plenty of gifting opportunities. When it comes to buying gifts for someone else, customers can be quite a lot more adventurous and impulsive. Make sure you have some stand out pieces around the shop.

3. The most important time of year is immediately after Christmas, gathering data. A good Christmas is so much about the previous year’s performance. What sold well? What was overstocked? What did we make money on? What did we have to throw away? Because, come December 26, anything with December 25 or Christmas on it, even with a massive sale, is surely going to go to waste. That analysis is so vital.

4. You will have an awful lot of staff at Christmas. Make sure they are trained well so you get the best value out of them.

5. Consider your opening hours. I think people forget that customers are usually prepared to shop longer – earlier and later. Giving loyalty card holders the opportunity to shop at different times can yield a larger average spend.

6. Hampers still have a place. Have plenty of pre-packed goodies ready so customers don’t have to think too much about them. And offer different price points, £10, £20, £50, £100. Hampers are there for the lazy shopper. Offering a delivery service for hampers, if you can, is also worth considering.

7. Indulgence matters. Yes, we are in a crisis, but at Christmas people will spend money they would never consider spending at any other time. Create opportunities for customers to indulge further. Bring stuffings, sauces and stocks into butchery counters, and make sure cheese counters are well prepared with plenty of chutney and crackers.

A year in the making

Rupert Evans of Denstone Hall Farm Shop says a great Christmas season begins right after the previous one has been put to bed

I have always believed that the magic of Christmas is a year-round journey, not just a seasonal destination. It’s about instilling joy, fostering community, and delivering a unique, personalised experience that makes the season truly memorable for our customers. And it all begins with earnest preparations starting in January. From the farm shop and gift shop to the butchery and café, our team work all year round to make sure that the next Christmas is as unforgettable as the last. 

The festive season is a time of nostalgia, and we pride ourselves on being a part of our customers’ traditions. Timeless classics like our famous homemade mince pies, a recipe perfected over many years, continue to be popular, as well as our large range of artisan cheeses, sourced from some of the finest British cheesemakers, and let’s not forget our award-winning Denstone Hall rare-breed beef, a centrepiece on many a Christmas dinner table. 

In terms of trends, we anticipate a return to comfort and indulgence this year. After the challenges we’ve all faced, we believe our customers are seeking familiarity and joy in their food and drink choices. We expect to see an increase in sales of luxury items, such as our premium, local spirits and gourmet chocolates, as well as a focus on quality, whole ingredients and home-cooked meals, reflecting a desire to make this Christmas truly special.

This year we have implemented a more personalised customer experience through tailored recommendations and exclusive offers. We will analyse customer loyalty data to offer personalised suggestions for festive recipes, wine pairings and unique gift ideas, enhancing customer satisfaction and fostering long-term loyalty. 

At Denstone Hall, we also believe in celebrating the season with our community. From November, our café becomes a hub of festive activities. From our much-anticipated afternoon tea with Santa, to our popular wreath-making workshops, tasting events and Christmas fair night, our seasonal events not only bring people together but also help us to create a sense of festive community and tradition.

Amidst all the uncertainty of this last year, we’ve found success in focusing on what we do best – providing high-quality, locally-sourced and artisan products, as well as delivering excellent customer service. Being authentic, transparent, and dedicated to quality is what continues to set us apart. These are the principles that guide us at Denstone Hall, and I believe they are key to delivering a successful Christmas season.

Be inspired by the past but look to the future

Bruno Zoccola of Valentina Delis says using data from previous years is important, while keeping an eye on the new and exciting

How are you preparing for Christmas?

Forward planning is key for Valentina, and by now we’ve done much of our preparation already. We start planning the minute Easter is over, placing our orders with UK suppliers.

We’ve spent time going through last year’s sales - what did well and what we need to replace - and we’re always on the lookout for new sellers who we want to work with, and new items we want to stock. 

In the weeks and months leading up to Christmas, we generate up a detailed plan to manage our stock levels. Whilst we have a big store, we don’t have a huge storeroom and so need to work cleverly to ensure stock arrives when we need it and not to create a bottleneck whilst we’re waiting to for shelf stock to be sold. 

For us, Christmas begins in the week leading up to Halloween, and after the 31st, Christmas is fully under way. The store is decorated, Christmas products are on the shelves, and our festive promotions begin. It’s a long run, but we mix things up - ensuring we regularly move stock around, so customers get a different perspective each time they come in, and are enticed by different products. We also have an in-store Christmas brochure that customers can take away with them, to be inspired by us they flick through the pages at home.

And we make sure we have an increased number of staff on the shop floor. We believe that it’s important to keep many more staff customer side than behind the till so they can share intel and local expertise (especially around the Mediterranean products we specialise in), as well as upselling to customers browsing for something to buy.

We trade up until Christmas Eve and then are back open on the 27th when we usually enjoy a really good trade with people buying presents to visit relatives with or to stock up on delicacies before New Year. From January onwards, it’s sale and promotion time!

What are your nuggets of advice for fellow retailers?

You’ve really got to go for it at Christmas time. Commit to it financially, mentally, and physically, because it isn’t an easy time in hospitality. We’ve had plenty of years that haven’t been as successful as we’d hoped, but we’ve committed to just fighting through the difficulties.

The worst mistakes we’ve ever made have been when we’ve underbought stock. This has been far worse than overbuying, because without enough products to fill the shelves you end up with a half empty store, an uninspiring display, and customers just walking past. With overbuying there is always the option to sell any excess stock in the January promotional period, and at least your shop will always feel abundant – particularly important at Christmas, and a helpful way to build up a customer base for the following year. This year we will be heavily promoting our loyalty card scheme, focusing on a preview of our Christmas offerings.

Which products work best for you?

We learnt quickly that people want to visit Valentina to buy products that feel outside the box – something special. We don’t focus on Christmas puddings that can be bought in any supermarket, we want to offer unusual, artisan panettone, hand-wrapped pandoro, quirky chocolates, and unique bottles of Italian wine.

We also find what people are buying ebbs and flows throughout the Christmas period. In November people focus on gifts (we do a huge trade in kits for pasta making, gingerbread houses and hampers) whilst further towards Christmas it’s about stocking up on special delicacies to enjoy around their Christmas table.

Are there any promotional or merchandising tools you find useful?

At Valentina we ensure the products are at the centre of our merchandising and promotional tools. We want our shop to feel colourful, unusual, and like a treasure trove of goodies. We don’t want any decorations to distract from what we’re offering, so we incorporate our stock into the festivities – for example, where other retailers may have a couple of different panettones on display, we create an entire wall of them which looks impressive, shows our expertise, and draws attention to one of our flagship products.

What’s going to be hot this season?

Definitely our Valentina panettone! People come back year after year for it and regularly gift to friends and families.

We think that with the current economic climate, delis and fine food stores will do well as people will treat themselves to quality cheese, red wine, and meats, which are appreciated at this time of year as a spoiling treat, rather than buying ‘tat’. We will also be encouraging customers to look at our special, smaller items/stocking fillers, such as Nio cocktails and gianduja chocolate

We love being part of our customers’ joy

Nick Punter of Suffolk Food Hall says the whole team enjoys getting into the festive spirit

What makes Christmas in retail so special?

I think one of the main reasons is the build up. You’re in amongst Christmas and the festive feeling for quite a long time and there’s so much excitement when the first Christmas drops start coming in. Having sat near Wendy and Jean, our buyers in the office, I’ve been hearing Christmas spoken about since March. I know Wendy will be ordering for next Christmas during the end of this year. 

The other main reason that it is so special is that you are a part of the joy for customers, whether it’s fulfilling Christmas orders, helping build hampers or just seeing the smiles on faces, oh and listening to the Christmas music too (although sometimes it can get a bit repetitive). You know that you are playing a part in such a special day for many people, even if it is a small part of helping them with their shopping.

What are your top sellers at Christmas?

Obviously being a farm shop predominantly, our butchery is the busiest section, from turkey orders to beef. Second to that would be our hampers. Each year our hamper department has grown, and this year we are expecting an even busier Christmas. We will be offering a selection of ready-made non-seasonal hampers as well as four speciality Christmas hampers and, new for this year, a deluxe hamper. Lucy and the team have been taking hamper orders for Christmas since August and will continue to do so until the very end. They work incredibly hard. 

Are there any new products you’re excited about this year?

Our food buyer Jean says she is loving the new packaging from Pump Street chocolate, featuring a local artist’s charming watercolours. She’s excited about gathering together our largest collection ever of local wines, beers and spirits. There are great advent calendars too, from tea to jelly beans, peanut butter cups, and boozy chocolates. And she is impressed by the gorgeous new biscuit tins from Cartright & Butley, ceramic olive oil bottles with cactus, fish or octopus designs, and some super-cool hot chocolates from Harry’s that come in a tin that looks a bit like a paint tin.

Buying local matters

Sam Steggles of Fielding Cottage, says supporting local producers in The Goat Shed farm shop is even more important at Christmas

How are you preparing for the festive season?

Christmas is a really important time for The Goat Shed because it’s when all our customers come together and really appreciate the values of buying local more than ever. They’re sharing time with their family and loved ones, and that’s creating a real buzz around the shop. It’s also a time of celebration, and we have lots of great events for our customers to be a part of, from carol singing and storytelling, to the fantastic Christmas menu in the kitchen. We decorate the shop, and open the Christmas shed. It’s full flow here as, ultimately for us, it’s our harvest.

What are the products that usually sell best for you?

Being cheesemakers, cheese is at the top of our list! Our award-winning goats’ cheese is always in our bestselling products week in week out and we do see a huge uplift at Christmas. The cheese goes hand in hand with the condiments and crackers from our farm shop to create the perfect pairing.

Do you have any advice for other retailers to succeed at Christmas?

I think I would be looking at other retailers to give me advice for Christmas! We’re relatively new to this game. I think that the important thing, and not just at Christmas but at any point, is to listen to your customers. Listen to what they wish for, listen to what they’re asking you to get, and deliver on it and try to exceed expectations all the time. I think it’s important to remember yes, we’re here working hard, but our customers are here to enjoy themselves and their shopping experience, and we must make that as pleasurable as possible. Whether that’s a mince pie and a glass of mulled wine or a friendly smile and a little chat.

What works best for you at this time of year to generate customer engagement?

Successful ideas for us have included creating an Alpine theme in store. We need to recreate that Nordic experience. We want the smell of pine as customers are walking around. We give them mulled wine and mince pies. We have a Christmas event for our loyalty customers to preview the Christmas shed. I think that’s really important, because it gives us a chance to interact with our customers whilst still in a work and shop environment, but also on a social basis, and I think that’s where retailing has maybe lost its edge from what I can remember as a young boy.

Are there any products you’re excited about this year?

I’m excited to have our new Christmas menu in our new kitchen going live. I think that’s going to be really exciting. It enables us to make a proper Christmas lunch, and we hope that it will be very well received. I think that in the shop area, the products which always seem to go well are local beers and gins at Christmas, and we have a wide selection of those as well as our range of cheeses that are perfect for sharing.

It’s the busiest time of year

Ash Sinfield of Teals loves the atmosphere Christmas brings to the farm shop

How do you feel about the festive season?

We are really looking forward to it, and it’s coming around soon. Christmas at Teals is another very busy time of the year, with people travelling along the A303 to see friends and family. It brings a lovely atmosphere in store with the anticipation of the festive season which we absolutely love.

Do you have any advice for fellow retailers?

We have a restaurant and food-to-go section, serving delicious seasonal and locally-sourced produce. We also have a food market (including butchery and cheese counters) and lifestyle area all under one roof. Retailers similar to ours need to ensure they can offer something for everyone in each of these sections at various different price points, whilst holding true to their values and business ethos. We like to focus on local as much as we can, whilst highlighting other brands that are doing something great in a sustainable way but may be based somewhere further afield. 

Which products work best for you at this time of year?

There are the obvious products like lovely boxed chocolates and Christmas novelty and stocking fillers, but the more interesting, unique and niche products also do very well for us as we work hard to source products you can’t find everywhere else. Our butchery and cheese counter is always popular around the festive period and we’re expecting it to be the same this year. All our products are sourced from local farms around Teals which makes them super popular and the perfect Christmas gift.

Do something different

Carlos Martinez-Diaz of Balgove Larder shares his Christmas inspiration

How do you feel about the impending festive season?

This is it! We’re excited about, what we feel, will be a bumper Christmas after a disruptive few years. There’s definitely a real feeling of ‘back to normality’. 

What’s your advice for other retailers?

Step it up, break the mould and do something different. Be imaginative and creative and invest on this Christmas being the big one.

Are there any products that work particularly well for you at this time of year?

Our butchery counter does very well at Christmas, with customers searching for turkey alternatives. Bone-in rib of beef makes a great Christmas table centrepiece. This, as well as our popular steak pies, which are made using stewing beef, slow cooked for 10 hours. In Scotland, it’s traditional to have steak pie on New Year’s Day and so sales are always popular of these.

What do you think will trend this year?

Probably pink decorated Christmas trees, following the recent Barbie film. And graze boards have been trending on social media. Charcuterie boards are a great way of bringing everyone together in the lead up to Christmas, with very little effort and time spent in the kitchen. We offer our Charcuterie Sharing Board online, which has been very well received.

Take action before the festive rush begins

Ralph Bishop of Friday Street Farm Shop shares some of his top tips for Christmas preparation

1. Look at past records on ordering, predicting sales to make sure you have enough stock to avoid running out, but finding that balance of not over ordering unwanted stock.

2. Find out if you need to train up any staff prior to Christmas, even if it’s just for the festive period.

3. Promote more gifting ideas for presents, hampers with local produce in and with own branding.

4. Promote any shop offers with your loyalty card scheme to reward customers for their custom. This is done visually in our shop as well as via email to our database.

5. Try out vouchers. Last year we gave all customers a 10% voucher off in our farm shop in January when they spent over £10 in December, which worked well and increased revenue.

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