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Nearly two years into the Covid pandemic, there are still plenty of question marks over how the UK will celebrate the upcoming festive season. While – as we’ve all learned – one can never be sure about future plans in the Covid era, it’s looking as though we’re set to enjoy a more ‘normal’ Christmas than we did in 2020; gatherings are likely back on the table (give or take a few guest list restrictions), and shoppers are primed to make an occasion out of it.
According to Michael Freedman, senior shopper insight manager at IGD, “The key influence in the run up to Christmas 2021 will be Covid-19. If there are renewed restrictions this winter because of a rise in cases, Christmas will look very different compared to a scenario where cases continue a downward trajectory with little or no restrictions. If we continue with no restrictions, IGD’s ShopperVista insight shows that we can expect to see a return to Christmas 2019 and ‘normality’ for most consumers.”
The good news is that “some 27% of shoppers say they expect Christmas 2021 to be bigger than normal,” he says, “with this rising to 50% of 18–24-year-old shoppers (Jan ’21), so it’s likely that Christmas this year will see people coming together for larger celebrations, making up for lost time.”
But how can independent fine food retailers cash in on this ever-moving feast? There are four key areas to consider:
Firstly, how will consumers want to shop? After a tough couple of years we’re all craving something special, so some customers might appreciate fanfare and want retailers to create a glittering festive ‘experience’ around their visit. Bear in mind, though, that some will retain a ‘safety first’ mentality – these shoppers will appreciate convenience and ease of movement around the store. If you’re unable to cater for ‘get in, get out’ shoppers, make sure your online platforms and delivery services are on point so they don’t move their custom elsewhere.
According to IGD’s Michael, “Safety, while still important to shoppers, has become less of a priority as more restrictions have been lifted. IGD’s recent food-to-go research shows that 85% of shoppers stated that Covid-safety measures were important in Q2 2021, compared to 92% in Q1 2021. The top consideration for food and grocery shoppers is a convenient store location with 56% citing this as their main reason for choosing a store (July 21),” explains Michael.
“At the height of the pandemic in April 2020, the second highest store choice driver for shoppers was good choice and availability of products (43%) however this has decreased to 36% as more restrictions have lifted and shopper priorities have changed. Factors such as being able to save money and the store being quicker and easier have become more important than choice of products.”
While product variety isn’t a vital consideration for shoppers, the quality of the items they’re buying is becoming increasingly key. “Product quality has also become a more important consideration for shoppers as shopper confidence and financial confidence has improved – the proportion of shoppers stating quality as a key consideration has increased from 27% in Q2 2020 to 31% in Q2 2021,” Michael continues.
“Ever since restrictions have lifted (more over time, of course) we have seen a big return of customers to shopping in-store and enjoying their time in the Café, Restaurant and outside,” says Nick Punter, marketing and design coordinator at Suffolk Food Hall, and he believes this momentum will continue throughout the Christmas period. The fact that the store offers a myriad of services – with a full-carcass butchery, artisan bakery, deli and fishmonger all under one roof – with expert staff being on-hand to answer any questions shoppers might have, is undoubtedly a boon that not all indies have.
Something most if not all independents can consider implementing is a ‘contactless collection’ service; this has been of benefit to Suffolk Food Hall and its customers in recent times, “and more may want to use the service during the Christmas period because it is safe,” says Nick.
While other options are on the menu, Nick predicts that most customers will choose to indulge in the full retail experience in-store. “I believe that the majority of our customers will spend time in the store, browsing all the Christmas items, gifts, specialities and of course, hopefully placing their Christmas butchery orders all in good time too,” he says.
Of course, display plays a huge part in the retail experience for customers regardless of their shopping style. Should you go all out, big and bold, to lead imaginations to cater for full-on feasts, or think small-scale to encourage small gatherings to be that little bit more special?
“In some ways we have learnt to be ready for anything,” says Judy Roberts of Right Product, Right Place. “So much of what we’ve had to cope with over the past year and a half has been new and we’ve had to learn on the hoof, as it were, in order to capitalise on the opportunities that were available. This period has been such a test of agility, and those smaller independent retailers who have been able to adapt their stock and service style to the new ways of working have survived and cemented themselves in the hearts and minds of their customer base.”
The answer is to be adaptable and quick to cater for the demand as it stands at any given time. “This year I’m sure retailers will be hedging their bets and able to scale up or down to suit the requirement when we get our final instruction,” Judy says. How does this look in-store? “Having a range of meal options with smaller and larger joints, veg packs and dessert treats will ensure you are ready to weather the storm, and appeal to all sizes of gathering,” she advises.
From the retailer point of view, traditional festive sales techniques are holding firm. “We expect more customers to shop in-store so want to showcase products to them, so expect big table displays,” says Nick. “There is a general feeling that the displays will continue much like they have done every year, with big tables of main items like Christmas puds, chocolates, gifts and more!”
Food trends, as ever, are worth noting as we enter the festive season. While tradition will always be king – who can say no to a bronzed turkey with glistening cranberry chutney and a mountain of dusted mince pies? – the lockdown trend for internationally inspired flavours is sure to continue in some guise or another, plus each household may have developed its own individual traditions they’ll be expecting their favourite retailers to cater for.
“As we approach Christmas there are many things that retailers need to think about when deciding their range for the festive period. In the specialist retail sector consumers want to see products that are authentic as well as catering for the many different dietary requirements and lifestyle living,” explains Paul Garrod, managing director of Skoulikas Bedford, Continental fine food provider. “The sector needs to shout about the many different products that sometimes the major retailers do not stock.”
Considering the different dietary lifestyles of your customers will reap rewards. “Can you stock products that appeal to the many different needs of the consumer, ie vegan, gluten-free and lactose intolerant? These are growing areas and people visit shops looking for these types of products,” he advises.
For Nick, the lockdown trend to ‘buy British’ is set to carry on well beyond the festive season. “We have seen a focus shift to British produce more so than before, and I think this will continue for Christmas – especially with butchery orders. Customers want to know where their products are coming from, and as we have our own herd of Red Poll and Angus cows and work closely with poultry suppliers and farms supplying pork and other items, we know where our products come from and can answer any questions customers have.”
For Suffolk Food Hall, classic Christmas fare is set to get tills ringing this Christmas. “I think customers focus more on their traditions over Christmas; they want to keep to food and drink they have enjoyed in previous years because they know it will be well received,” Nick explains.
It’s needless to say that Christmas is often a time of indulgence, but be smart about how you approach your most luxe items this year. Products which moonlight as great gifting options will be a smart stocking decision, and some shoppers will want to go all out to make up for last year – expensive Champagne, the finest cheese and chocolates, the lot – but be sure to cater to the more restrained customer, too.
While some consumers have saved over the past 18 months, others have struggled, so offering indulgences at a variety of price points is a good way to go. The Lipstick Effect will no doubt be in full force this Christmas, so position your ‘affordable luxuries’ front and centre and they’ll be flying off the shelves. “In 2020 we saw shoppers spend less on treats – tins of chocolates and biscuits, party foods and desserts – as they celebrated in smaller groups,” says Michael. “If the situation with Covid-19 is a positive one, I would expect this to change back to ‘normal’ – with shoppers placing more emphasis on treats and visiting friends and family, and a return to those smaller, more casual occasions in the build up to Christmas that didn’t really happen in 2020.
“However, much will depend on how shoppers feel financially and whether they are riding the upper or lower arm of the UK’s current K-shaped economic recovery. Consumers who have struggled financially through the pandemic may see a more subdued Christmas with less treats, smaller celebrations and may potentially stay at home rather than spending in the out-of-home sector.”
According to Judy, great merchandising is the key to selling indulgent items. “Catch the eye on top of the meat counter with the Wine of the Week, perfect for the roast beef or turkey. Ensure your special mustard with truffle or the seasonal chutney with cranberries get great positions on the cheese counter. Highlight them as ‘We Love…’ to give them that personal touch and build your customers’ trust in your brand.” As well as merchandising your product range well, be sure to offer a great customer service to differentiate yourself from the multiples and maintain your enlarged lockdown audience.
“Flag up your expertise, and that of your team, to show that you can help your customers to build that perfect cheeseboard – whether as a gift or centrepiece for themselves,” she says, “and offer add-ons such as a pack of your favourite crackers for those that take you up.”
Now that events are back in business, consider reinstating Meet the Producer and tasting events to get your customers engaging with your quality products. “Wine or spirit tasting events to help customers choose what to buy as gifts can become showcases for all your choicest product lines,” but she recommends “involving your suppliers well in advance to ensure you don’t miss the boat, particularly if you are working with small producers who you really want to be associated with.
“There’s nothing like the distiller him- or herself coming along to wax lyrical about all the botanicals in a range of gins for instance; passion and enthusiasm sell, so capture that in your showcases.” By offering your customers truly exceptional products, service and experience – all the while catering to your customers’ varied circumstances – Christmas 2021 can be one to remember… for all the right reasons.