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The Christmas period always involves a degree of crystal ball gazing. Will shoppers be inclined to up their spending? Which products will be on their lists? Will they opt for tradition or try something different?
Yet despite the usual question marks, experts believe Christmas 2021 could be one for the books following disappointment for many last year. “This could be a really bumper Christmas,” says Edward Berry, consultant at The Flying Fork. “I think there’s a good reason to be optimistic, and you only have to look at what’s been going on around the country with UK holiday travel and festivals,” he says. “There is a great desire to see everybody and to be sociable, and Christmas retail feeds into that moment to be together and to celebrate.”
This doesn’t mean retailers can rest on their laurels and go back to the Christmas 2019 playbook. “Christmas this year will not be back to normal,” predicts Sarah Elliott, shop manager at Minskip Farm Shop. “However, it will definitely be bigger and better than last year. I think it will be an extra-special Christmas to make up for what everyone has missed out on – not just last Christmas, but the last year as a whole,” she continued. To help retailers live up to customers weighty expectations this year, Speciality Food has outlined a checklist of eight steps retailers can follow in order to make Christmas 2021 one to remember.
Fine food independents shouldn’t underestimate consumers’ desire to get together and celebrate this Christmas, warns Catherine Erdly, founder of The Resilient Retail Club – and that means pushing the Christmas sell early. “The key is going to be preparing in plenty of time for people who want to get ready early and making sure that you’re talking about your offers for Christmas from October onwards so that people can start planning even if they are not purchasing right away,” she says.
Sarah adds that ordering stock in plenty of time is critical to success over the holidays. “The majority of our Christmas stock was ordered in late spring, beginning of summer, which felt like a bizarre activity in the glorious sunshine we were having,” she says. And to those who were hesitant about quantities, Edward suggests that retailers shouldn’t be afraid of going big this festive season. “The major message for retailers is to be a little bullish, and be prepared for some busy days and nights,” he says. “My advice would be to be ambitious.”
The next task to tick off your list is preparing your in-store Christmas experience. “You want it to be eye-catching, so you want to try and attract people from the shop window onwards, making sure that it looks inviting and they want to come in.” There are numerous exciting avenues to explore with displays.
But as well as creating a festive and welcoming space, safety will continue to be a priority for many shoppers. “Cleanliness is still going to be top of people’s minds, and safety as well, so making sure you are keeping those elements really front and centre will make sure the customer feels comfortable coming into your physical space,” Catherine says. This is an area where fine food independents have shone during the pandemic. “In my experience, the independents have not dropped their guard on safety at all,” Edward says. Encouraging masks as well as sanitising surfaces, ventilating spaces and social distancing, have all become a part of the ‘new normal’.
Taking on new staff members and training them up is a crucial part of Christmas preparations – and another area where early planning will pay off. “Work out in plenty of time what your requirements will be and keep an eye out for great candidates,” Catherine says. “Don’t leave it to the last minute when all of the best people will have been snapped up.” If your shop is recruiting, Catherine recommends creating a clear job description with a list of roles and responsibilities. It can also help to give some details of the working environment, for example mentioning that your business is independent or family run, as these may be important qualities to applicants.
Training new staff members is also important in the run-up to Christmas. “We will need every spare hand to help prepare for the festive season and handle the busy period,” Sarah says. “We get the best out of staff with an open communication. If we are open and honest with them then it will make them feel more comfortable and return the open communication back. We ensure everyone is happy by working side-by-side with them all year. We are very blessed with the team we have here, with how well we all get along inside and outside of work.” Preparing standardised training can also help ensure the onboarding process smooth, and that new staff members are up to speed as quickly as possible, Catherine says.
Many bricks and mortar retailers – including Minskip Farm Shop – experienced their first foray into online Christmas sales last year. This year, Minskip is diving back in, offering home deliveries as well as ‘Cluck and Collect’. Online food shopping has remained popular post-lockdown, and if Covid-19 cases rise over the winter, retailers can expect e-commerce sales to pick up again.
Catherine recommends running an audit of your website to check that everything is working correctly. “It’s a question of checking that your online website reflects your store, making it as seamless as possible,” she says. As with physical retail, the earlier you can prepare your e-commerce shop the better. For Fulop Gabor, managing director of Jack & Beyond, an online and bricks and mortar cake shop, preparations are well underway. “Our products are already uploaded and so are the Christmas product categories on our website, but they are hidden for now. It is important to upload a couple of months before so Google can start to recognise and index your pages before the actual sale starts,” he explains. “Don’t leave it for the last minute because it will be extremely hard to appear on search engine sites.”
While e-commerce offers exciting possibilities, there is no point promising the world if you can’t deliver. Harry Dance, digital marketing director of Kayo Digital recommends building in a lead time that is advertised on your website, then using a third-party fulfilment tool to handle picking and shipping. “It will have the added benefit of linking with couriers to generate labels and arrange shipments,” he says.
Jack & Beyond’s Fulop has chosen a final shipping day of 21st December to give his business – and delivery companies – plenty of time to get products to their destinations. “It is too risky to push it to the 22nd as usually there are some delays with all the shipping companies, especially Royal Mail. Our busiest period is always the last week of Christmas,” he says. Encouraging early orders can also help manage business during the busier periods. “We will encourage the customers to pre order between Black Friday and the 6th of December with a 10% discount,” Fulop says. “We are baking everything from scratch so this allows us to plan ahead and maximise the sales.”
While social media is likely a part of your year-round strategy, Mark Smith, social media strategist and content producer at Double Up Social, recommends tailoring your content to the season to get the most out of your social channels around the festive season. “Christmas means different things to different people, but the general sense of giving, generosity and cold weather all prevail. Therefore, during the Christmas season, your content strategy should represent this. Think giveaways, advent ideas, and a general overhaul of your image bank to feel more Christmassy! Not only will this show that your brand is active and responsive, but is also a perfect opportunity to share your brand values,” he explains.
To get the most out of your social media accounts, avoid posting and disappearing. “Being active and creating conversations does wonders in increasing your social presence. (It’s called social media for a reason!) Using polls, questions, memes, etc all help drum up conversation around your brand, and are often a good way to encourage your audience to tag and bring in new people to your community,” Mark says.
Fine food independents should also consider getting their cameras out during the preparation stage to give customers a sneak peek. “Bring the customers along on the journey, share behind the scenes of you getting ready for Christmas, help them build the excitement and make sure you are telling them about all of the ways that you can help them have the best Christmas ever,” Catherine says.
“People don’t like hearing this, but social media is increasingly becoming a paid advertising tool,” says Harry. “Because of this, you’re likely to have to put your hand in your pocket if you’re to generate revenue. The reason being? Social platforms want companies to pay for their exposure and make the social platforms more about people.”
Mark agrees that many platforms today are becoming ‘pay-to-play’. “When running ads, retailers should utilise Facebook’s Ads Manager – rather than ‘boosting’ or ‘promoting’ posts from directly within the Facebook and Instagram Apps,” he adds. “The free Facebook Ads Manager allows you to set up and fine-tune ads with much more detail and often provide a much better return-on-ad-spend compared to creating ‘simpler’ ads directly through the platform itself.”
If you’re in a pinch and aren’t able to pay for advertising, Harry recommends encouraging friends, family and customers to share your content in order to organically grow your reach. “Create competitions, giveaways and use images and videos to generate engagement,” he says.
In a world increasingly ruled by GDPR, tech giants like Google and Facebook are offering advertisers less information to protect their users. Because of this, ‘owned data’ is increasingly important for those looking to grow their online presence. Enter the email newsletter. “When someone buys from you, ask if they would like to be part of your newsletter. If they say yes, you will then have a piece of owned data you can use to help you grow a relationship and your business,” Harry explains. “Don’t let the email lists you’ve collated over the years go to waste. Their value will only increase.”
On top of this, retailers can create online loyalty programmes. “Increasingly, there is software being released to help with loyalty programmes. They can even be free if you are a certain size. Companies like LoyaltyLion help make more money by keeping current customers happy, encouraging referrals and improve e-commerce retention,” Harry says.
By preparing early and perfecting both in-store and digital operations this Christmas, retailers can make this year their – and their customers’ – best.
Speciality Food asks Neil Donachie, out of home marketing manager at Fentimans, how the drinks maker is preparing for the Christmas rush
How is Fentimans preparing for the Christmas season this year?
Fentimans has always traditionally performed well at Christmas. Our premium positioning makes us the brand of choice for special family occasions which take place throughout the season. We have seen strong sales since the lifting of restrictions across all channels and we fully anticipate this will carry through into the last few months of the year, particularly for our iconic Ginger Beer, a flavour perfect suited to the time of year.
In preparation, at Fentimans we tend to invest in consumer advertising from September to November, between the summer and December peaks, to introduce as many new consumers to the brand as possible and remind those who haven’t purchased the brand in a while before they make their Christmas purchases.
Are there any trends in the drinks space that retailers should be aware of this festive season?
One big trend we have seen following the pandemic is the growth of at-home cocktails. As the on-trade closed, many consumers began making their favourite drinks at home and this has seen a big surge in demand for the relevant ingredients. It will be interesting to see if this results in a surge in demand for cocktail-based ingredients as consumers get together over the festive season.
What tips can you offer for retailers who are planning for Christmas now?
Christmas is a time when many shoppers are on ‘auto-pilot,’ with large amounts of shopping to do and many trip purchases pre-planned. Ensuring point of purchase features are visually impactful and contain relevant messages will give you the best chance of capitalising on higher footfall and increasing impulse purchases.