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Christmas is the biggest, most important time of year for retailers – so much so that barely a Boxing Day goes by without thinking about the following festive period. “We start planning Christmas as soon as we finish delivering Christmas. It literally is Christmas every day at Booths,” says John Gill, the retailer’s head of trading and marketing.
By summer, stock is ordered, and by the time the first autumn leaf hits the ground, the decorations are ready – if not up – staff are well briefed, and festive promotions are underway. But there are always last-minute tweaks to be made once the festive season arrives – especially in these times of such economic and political uncertainty.
Independent retailers especially have the flexibility to adapt last minute – whether that’s tweaking or changing their website or social media, writing up a last-minute festive blog post or newsletter to customers, or giving staff a new incentive to really ensure the festive enthusiasm that helps to drive sales. But this year, retailers have a lot more to contend with – and many reasons to be flexible as close to December 25th as they can. The HGV crisis across the UK continues to affect supply chains, while constant reports on the predictions around numbers of Covid-19 rising in winter don’t do anything to allay fears of further uncertainty to come.
For many independent retailers, customers’ new and changing buying habits are keeping them on their toes. For Heather Parry, managing director of Yorkshire farm shop and café Fodder, last minute-preparation this festive period has been dictated by how her customers will be shopping differently this year.
Parry expects this Christmas to be very different, and aims to respond to changes to what customers want compared to before the pandemic. She noticed through the pandemic that people reconnected with nature, and says this translates to an opportunity for retailers like Fodder. “People are looking to be in tune with the environment more. They want local, good stuff that’s had thought and care put into it. Their values have improved. They want to buy from small, local, artisan places, so the independent sector is uniquely placed.”
Customers, Parry adds, are also increasingly looking for stories behind what they buy. “People are more considerate. They don’t want more stuff, they want special, meaningful things. They want to spend money wisely, and know that spending money helps the local community.”
In response, Fodder will be stocking up on candles made from empty gin bottles, which a local woman has been collecting from bars around Harrogate. Fodder will also be offering last-minute recipe ideas for customers looking for some inspiration. “People will also be looking for local food that’s easy to prepare, so we’re doing a lot of recipe work with a local stylist,” she says, adding that these recipes are made up of locally sourced ingredients.
“No one wants to be sold to anymore, so for us it’s about inspiring. This year, our message is all about recipes,” she says. “People are preparing for a real celebration,” she says. “Things will be more meaningful, with people being together and sharing. Local food hits this smack in the face, as does eating naturally and sustainably.”
But this is driving a shift in consumers’ spending behaviours, which in turn, affects what retailers will be buying in last-minute. “Everyone wants Christmas to be special, so people are shopping earlier. It’s going to be a well-planned Christmas,” she says.
Other retailers are also noticing that people are buying in advance this year – perhaps partly due to seeing and hearing about empty supermarket shelves, and partly because they’re preparing for big celebrations. “People aren’t panic-buying, but they’re buying earlier than they perhaps usually would do,” says Andrew Goodacre, chief executive of the British Independent Retailers Association.
This means independent retailers have a judgement call to make: order more stock, or avoid the risk of having too much stock during an uncertain time, when customer spending is difficult to predict. For Ruth Huxley, owner and manager of the Great Cornish Food Store, people spending more in advance this year presents the retailer some challenges.
“We’re seeing people already buying things with a long shelf life because they’re worried the shelves will be empty, but we’re not worried about that. We deal directly with suppliers and we have a short supply chain because our products are all local,” she says. “We’re making sure we’ve got top quality fresh produce for people that they can’t by in advance. Most of our food here is fresh, and people can’t bring these purchases forward so they have to leave them until the last minute.
“The challenge for us is whether people will be buying frozen turkeys and not birds nearer the time. We’re trying to get customers to pre-order as much as possible so we’ve got an idea and can commit to those orders, but there’s a lot we’ll have to leave until the last minute.” Huxley has already visited all the shop’s suppliers to make sure they’re all okay, and has asked for timings of deliveries earlier, which is something she doesn’t usually do.
To combat these uncertainties, Goodacre advises retailers to buy as much stock as they can now. “Independent retailers have a nimbler supply chain, whereas large supermarkets are quite rigid in terms of which stock comes from where,” he says. “We’re seeing independent retailers working very closely with suppliers; they’re worried about some products’ availability but they’re trying to buy in advance. The ultimate threat will be whether they have all the products as normal to cover the festive period,” he says.
“The challenge is that buying in advance means cash, which people don’t always have, particularly after coming through a difficult pandemic. How far ahead they can purchase will be one of the biggest challenges. “There are some short-term solutions. People are being asked to buy more in advance and storing it on site, but this isn’t an option to every retailer. I wouldn’t recommend leaving anything until the last minute – it’s risky – but I understand why people need to because of cash flow.”
Huxley, however, may not be pre-ordering in the quantities she might have done in previous years in the final few days leading up to Christmas. “It’s too risky to end up with a lot of stock,” she says – but she’s optimistic. “On the other hand, the independent sector might see an uplift in people wanting something extra special.”
In response to this, her store will be encouraging people to pre-order party food from its deli counter in the weeks before Christmas. “We’re anticipating that chefs will probably be busy with party food, we’re thinking people will want to have informal get-togethers with friends. We’re planning for that, but it’ll be last minute, we can’t do it in advance,” she says. “People who aren’t ready to go back to restaurants want easy dining at home, but something nice that someone else has made.”
The other reason supply may be affected is the HGV crisis that’s been ongoing across the UK for months, due to a shortage of HGV drivers. Some supermarkets have been limiting their stock to essential items, to help stave off panic buying. But many independent retailers see this as an opportunity – and don’t anticipate needing to make any last-minute decisions to mitigate negative impacts.
“We’re a small place with a short supply chain,” Parry says. “Our shelves have been full this whole time. It’s given a push to the independent sector; we can do things the bigger boys can’t – we don’t have HGVs, and 85% of what we sell comes from Yorkshire.” The other uncertainty leaving retailers unsure of what and how to prepare in the final weeks before Christmas is the looming threat of rising Covid-19 infection rates. Experts have warned that there could be restrictions put in place, and that transmission of the virus won’t improve until after winter.
Marco Rosa, co-founder of Delicario, says he isn’t a last-minute planner. But while he’s confident that the current economic and political situation puts Delicario, and other independent retailers in a good position, he worries it could also present problems. “This year could be challenging because of Covid-19. We’re focusing on Christmas hampers this year, but one challenge is there could be issues bringing them in from the far east to the UK,” he says.
But if any Covid restrictions are introduced before Christmas, Rosa is confident that he doesn’t need to do much preparation in advance. “We learnt a lot from last year,” he says. “Independent shops were excellent in organising themselves for home delivery services. We don’t need to learn from scratch, like we did last year.”
One area that retailers can tweak at the last minute to prepare for Christmas is their websites. “We’re changing our website and making online ordering easier to do, but we will also have to react,” Parry says. She has three plans for Christmas, depending on how the festive period could unfold, and any last-minute restrictions that may come into force to help control the spread of Covid-19.
“That’s what the pandemic has taught us – when Covid hit, we had online orders up on the Monday morning. It showed us we can do stuff quicker than we thought, and taught us that you don’t have to overthink it. We’ll just have to wait and see which plan we end up using.”
Booths also has a plan B to help mitigate this year’s uncertainties. “We plan Christmas carefully, but there is always something unexpected that crops up, particularly as we’ve faced so many challenges with in the supply chain,” says Gill.
“The main thing is to have a plan B and to be flexible in display. There’s always another product to highlight or promote if you’re light on deliveries of a specific product. Flexibility is key, and keeping up a close dialogue with suppliers, clear and open communication is key with the Booths supply chain.”
There are also last-minute arrangements to be made in-store – usually, at least. But Huxley is concerned with in-store events this year, and how these could potentially play out this Christmas. As an in-store-only retailer, these have been a big part of the store’s festive season in previous years. “The next few weeks will be telling to see if people’s confidence returns, or if some people aren’t ready for get-togethers in enclosed spaces yet, she says.
“We depend on our customers coming in for the experience of shopping here, seeing and smelling, talking to people behind our counters about our products and getting ideas from them.” She says she is still undecided about whether to host in-store events. “At the moment we have a policy where we’re recommending customers wear face coverings in store, so it’s not viable to request that then offer them testing to try.
“If things have reached a point where people are generally feeling much more relaxed and comfortable about people being in here without masks, we’d go ahead and do it, but we don’t know how infection rates will go as winter progresses so we’re not making firm plans at the moment, which is difficult. “Covid has taught us that no one knows what’s around the corner,” she says.