- The festive season is upon us – here's how to make sure the next few weeks go with a profitable bang
Subscribe to Speciality Food magazine today for just £19.99/year.subscribe now
It’s the busiest time for retail in general, but Christmas brings with it bumper sales for food and drink businesses. According to Kantar Worldpanel, the average household spent a record £1,054 on groceries in the 12 weeks leading up to 31st December last year. Customers even traded up to more expensive options, with a record £469 million spent on premium own label lines in December alone.
Fraser McKevitt, the company’s head of retail and consumer insight, said that while location is the most important factor in where people to shop during the rest of the year, over mChristmas they’ll travel further in search of specific festive products or better value.
With customers pushing the boat out when it comes to spending on their Christmas food and drink, how can retailers cash in on the festive fever? From perfect preparation to special seasonal displays, tantalising tastings and festive fun, what tricks do independent businesses use to make sure they cash in on customers’ keenness to spend at Christmas time?
“Consumers want an experience”
For Dan Ritsema, who founded Cranes Drinks with identical twin brother Ben in 2012, sampling is an essential part of the company’s marketing activity all year round – but even more so at Christmas. The company’s portfolio includes a range of fruit ciders as well as an award-winning Cranberry & Blood Orange Liqueur.
“Sampling is an essential part of Cranes Drinks marketing activity,” says Ritsema. “We have given out over 100,000 samples this year alone, and we have not even hit the Christmas period where we significantly increase our sampling activity. We find it incredibly effective, but it definitely helps having great tasting products. I think it is imperative for young food and drink brands to undertake sampling, particularly around the festive period, when brands are showcasing their products to the absolute maximum.
“We consider sampling one of the most effective ways to encourage trial, without using promotional discounts which run the risk of damaging your brand if you overdo it. This is not the case with sampling – you can never overdo it to the point where it harms brand image.”
But turning up and handing out samples isn’t enough, he says. “Consumers want to know every last detail about your product, from the history to the nutritional information. They want an experience. If you offer them that experience, this is where you will truly see sampling at its pinnacle. Hence why my brother and I make as many personal appearances as possible during sampling activity – consumers love meeting the founders and hearing our brand’s journey. It helps develop brand loyalty, as consumers feel they are getting to know you on a personal level (and they are), but it is also great for us to get to know our customers and learn what they want.”
Sean Welsh, owner of Flourish and Prosper, an award-winning specialist wine merchant and delicatessen in Howden, East Yorkshire, agrees. “We run a big annual tasting at the beginning of December supported by lots of our suppliers. It’s mainly wine driven but we also have some spirits, beer and cheese on offer. This is a really worthwhile event that has become a big thing in the local community and really helps capture sales at Christmas. The big thing I have learnt is to create a moment to address the crowd either with a free prize draw at which I can get up and ask for the order. Doing so last year more than tripled the orders we got on the night.”
For Nila Patel, who runs an iced biscuit business, Christmas is her busiest time of year and she maximises sales with lots of tastings and in-store events in the run-up to the festive season. “We try to do more creative activities e.g. cookie decorating early in the season and in the past couple of years personalisation has been a huge trend,” says Patel, whose customers include Fortnum & Mason, Harrods and Selfridges. “But where we are restricted for
space then a straightforward tasting/sampling can work really well. Customers love to engage with the owner of the brand and it can be a successful way to drive sales.
Sometimes in the last week or two before Christmas – depending on how sales are going, the retailer might call us back in to do sampling to drive those last minute sales. At this point, customers are usually looking for more ready-made gifts, so creative packaging, simple things like gift tags/gift sets can work really well.”
“Smart product pairing is key”
Getting creative with displays, products and windows is important, especially during the festive season, producers and retailers agree. “Getting your window right is important particularly for Christmas,” says Sean Welsh. “I can’t believe how early people start looking for ideas and it’s what they have seen on display that will bring them in eventually. We try to avoid products that are particularly Christmas packaged as there is always a danger of having leftover stock. Instead we like to get items we can put together and gift wrap suitably so that these packs can be stripped down if they don’t all sell.”
For him, hampers are “big business” at Christmas, and they use discounts to encourage people to get their orders in early. Showing people how things can be paired via displays is also helpful, says Kamil Shah, artisan olive oil maker and co-founder at Olive Branch, which supplies into the independent speciality retail sector. “In the run up to Christmas, delicatessen and farm shop cheese counters will become a hive of activity. A great way to upsell is to merchandise cheeseboard condiments directly in the cheese counter so customers can see cheese and condiment pairings. We make a Sweet Olive, Fig & Almond Relish which has a waterproof label, so can be merchandised perfectly in the chiller without the label spoiling.
“In the weeks before Christmas, we constantly remind stockists to merchandise jars in the chiller and they always report back positive feedback as they find it easy to upsell since customers can immediately see product combinations.”
Kalina Halatcheva, founder and managing director of Nouri, makes natural, sugar-free, gluten-free healthy balls, agrees. “Besides the Christmas decoration, of course, coupling products and arranging them together is one of the most often practised festive technique – for example, red wine and chocolates or gingerbread and winter tea. During the Christmas season, it is all about the appearance, rather than the product themselves, so retailers deploy all possible attention through colourful displays, Christmas lights and trees.”
For Spanish food retailer Brindisa, it’s about making sure that Christmas products complement the rest of the range. “We carefully develop our Christmas lines to complement the rest of the range, highlights always include confectionery which are great for impulse purchases,” says head of retail Mark Ashmore. “In contrast, our biggest seasonal sellers are the ham carving kits, which with an entry level price of £165 are a significant investment. Our in-store ham carving creates a theatrical display which draws people in – it’s something that Brindisa are famed for. Even in busy, tourist areas such as Borough Market, we know that this has a significant impact on sales.
“No matter how busy the store is, it’s vital to encourage consumers to try before they buy,” he says. “Cheese counter tastings are an essential part of our customer service offering and really encourages customers to purchase from us. However, for regular customers, we’re expanding the range of portioned cheeses available for those who know what they want and want to avoid the queues. We utilise local events such as Borough Market’s annual Evening of Cheese to promote our Christmas ranges and create festive displays with signage that points to gifting recipients or pricing (e.g. for him/ her, stocking fillers, luxury gifts).”
“Planning and storage are incredibly important”
When it comes to making the most of the influx of business over the Christmas period, it’s all about proper planning, says Sean Welsh. “With the way this Christmas falls shoppers will leave their food and drink shopping to the very last minute so planning and storage are going to be incredibly important. We will be doing our best to get pre-orders for cheese, but no doubt, like previous years, we will have customers rolling in at 5pm on Christmas Eve looking for us to do a cheese board for them. Planning for Christmas starts from June onwards with lining up suppliers for tastings, and the real momentum gathers in September/ October when all the Christmas offers come out.
“We are a small team staff-wise, but there are a few students who have worked for us previously who help boost the team come the final few days. The most important thing is to get your stock balance right; too much or too little is a real problem so it is an area I take a lot of time pondering, and having suppliers who can help right up to the last moment is important.”
For online meat retailer Farmison & Co, the preparation starts for Christmas as soon as the festive season finishes. “We start thinking about next Christmas as soon as the Christmas decorations are packed away,” says co-founder Lee Simmonds. “We analyse what has sold well and what is less popular. We listen to customer feedback. We look at changes of habits. We talk to our beloved farmers. It’s important to put together a comprehensive and, above all, great tasting range of products for our customers.
“Our ‘specialist’ products equally well – unusual cuts, bespoke cuts, chef prepared dishes and the like. It’s rare to be able to find heritage breed lamb, hogget and mutton in one place, for example. Then, about halfway through the year, we start to think about the rest – press, marketing, delivery etc. It’s a mammoth year-long operation, but we love it and we hope that we’re doing our bit to encourage people to eat better meat.”