Master the Art of the Christmas Pantry

11 November 2020, 11:14 AM
  • With a macro trend for home cooking hitting at the biggest feasting period of the year, there's more reason than ever to pitch your pantry supplies just right
Master the Art of the Christmas Pantry

It’s the most exciting time of year, when first-time cooks venture out for the exact glacé cherries that Mary Berry suggests, bakers scour your shelves for the hottest baking implement as featured in Martha De Lacey’s Instagram grid, and Christmas hosts scout for cheese biscuits their guests will know weren’t from Tesco. Of course, this year is different. After a bruising few months devoid of the normal celebrations, holidays and get-togethers, Christmas 2020 has a lot to make up for.

But with masks and sanitiser, lockdowns and number limits taking the shine off the most wonderful (retail) time of the year, how should you entice customers to come, peruse and leave with a heap of add-ons they didn’t know they wanted? Or take their online shop to your site, rather than hold out for a delivery slot with Ocado? For the most seasoned, innovative and successful of fine food retailers, encapsulating the magic of the season is all about planning big and stocking smart…

Curating the perfect pantry selection

“There are two distinct shoppers,” says Edward Berry of consultancy The Flying Fork. “Those seeking supplies for home, and those gifting. For the first, it starts with a list. I always encourage providing a checklist for customers; there are plenty of chances for some impulse buys and upselling.” Besides the endless items needed to execute a traditional menu of Christmas cooking from scratch, the huge trend to home baking presents some new opportunities for your Christmas pantry section. A new generation of lockdown sourdough aficionados will have learnt the value of specialist flours – local, stoneground, and full of flavour.

With the sweet baking trend gaining new traction this spring your customers are primed to try a broader range of glacé fruits, peels, essences, nuts and vine fruits to create their own magical bakes. In fact, California Walnuts estimates that home baking rose by nearly 50% earlier this year due to families spending more time at home. “This Christmas season will undoubtedly see a further increase in home baking,” the company says. Therefore, stocking up retail shelves with a range of high-quality ingredients for Christmas bakes is essential.

“‘Christmas’ is the big word here at the food hall,” says Nick Punter of Suffolk Food Hall on the banks of the River Orwell near Ipswich. “Our buyers often are talking Christmas early in the year, much to the dismay of others in the office! There are a few products that we deem must-haves: I would say that panettone is always a staple item available in the Food Hall, obviously Christmas pud too! Stokes Christmas packs go down a storm too, as well as many of the biscuit packs from Cartwright & Butler. Our loose chocolates from Harris & James and Charbonnel & Walker make great presents, and when you can pick your own selection it really makes it special.

“We do actually see an influx of new customers during the festive period, whether that’s curiosity and walking through the home department (Christmas decorations) or making orders with our butchery for Christmas. I do genuinely believe we offer fantastic quality and value for that quality. I know Christmas will be an odd one this year but I can envisage more of us wanting to really enjoy our Christmas time and have a high-quality Christmas, which means we all search for the very best products to enjoy. We also stock many products that the main supermarkets don’t, which also leads customers to the shop. I know I will be shopping with the money I’ve saved by not going on holiday!”

Helping your customers towards a really special Christmas may feel more important this year. According to Rachel Cacioppo, consumer insight director at Kantar, trusted brands associated with quality may perform better than usual. “One of the consistent patterns we see [in existing data] across grocery is brands growing ahead of often cheaper own-label lines. That’s happened consistently from March through to April.” How long this habit to buy on name holds up may depend on the severity of the recession as it bites this autumn. Whilst your summer may have been busy with customers happy to pay the extra, price may become a bigger factor when it comes to your Christmas pantry selections. “In the last recession we saw an increase in snacking and health became less important, though on the whole consumers were trading down,” says Rachel. “Also in the last recession discounts were a big levels, so yes shoppers were absolutely looking to treat themselves but shoppers were savvy in using promotions to manage their spend.” Using loyalty schemes, vouchers and other promotions may help tip hesitant customers on a budget into a purchase they feel good about, and will discuss within their networks.

Letting displays do the selling

For Edward, your displays should signpost your customers to every specialist ingredient without your busy staff having to get involved. “In store, merchandising should be organised with additional sales in mind; for example anything to go with turkey needs to be near the butchery counter, if there is one. Visual merchandising is essential, and it’s not, to my mind, a time for innovation. Christmas sales are extremely traditional.”

Indeed, building excitement in-store is about more than glitzy displays of luxuries (though these rarely go amiss). For many home cooks the ritual and nostalgia of Christmas can be evoked by some comparatively mundane ingredients: dried herbs for scratch-made stuffings; mounds of soft brown sugar piled around bundt tins; fancy tinned anchovies for special canapés. For the kitchen anorak a tub of aromatic dried porcini or neat jar of tonka beans is likely to outshine any sparkly decoration. “Christmas is probably our biggest time of the year,” says Nick. “That means our visual displays turn to Christmas gifting and seasonal food items. I would say a large section of our shop turns to Christmas once October hits. We also stock a large amount of items ready for hampers, which prove very popular every year both bespoke, pre-packed and corporate. So I would say, you definitely know it’s Christmas when you walk round the Food Hall! “

Helping stressed shoppers to the right gift

“The gift shopper may be buying outside their own taste, so there are chances here to sell an idea,” says Edward. “Again, it can be quite traditional, such as beer for boys. But with gifting, everything needs to look just a bit special: packs with an extra dimension and glasses with the beer, for example. I’d also say don’t forget the ‘stocking filler’ items that are neat sizes and of course Secret Santa, which requires specific price points: £5, £10 and so on.” Doing shoppers’ work for them is always a shortcut to a sale at such a busy time of year, and food gifts may be seen as a practical gift in a year when the physical and economic health of friends and family can’t be taken for granted.

Covid-19 will, of course, be affecting your approach to Christmas stock.“This year we ordered in what we knew would be easy to sell, as we weren’t sure whether we’d even be open in December or if we’d have to close due to coronavirus,” says Sue Billington, co-owner of Scottish deli Billingtons of Lenzie. “We sell a lot of panettone and Christmas cake, panforte, bars and boxes of chocolate, nice jams and chutneys, and we get in nice extra boxes of oatcakes and pates, biscuits in biscuit tins and that kind of thing. We order in larger quantities than usual of locally-made tablet and fudge, which people like to put into their hampers. Hampers sell well for us, and we offer a range of options including beer hampers and gluten-free, and bespoke versions too. We also sell a lot of chilli jams and marmalades, and bring in festive versions at Christmas like champagne jam and whisky marmalade; these are in our own-brand range.” Gift items are also big money spinners at Billingtons. “We used to sell ambient stuffing mixes, gravies and things like that,” says Sue. “However they didn’t sell well for us at all so we stopped stocking them and decided to focus on gifting items.”

“Our must-stock item? Chocolate, and a lot of it,” says Sue Johns, co-owner of Johns of Instow which has two delis and a grocery store in North Devon. Gifting makes the core focus in the business at Christmas, with giftable SKUs outnumbering pantry items by ten to one. “Gifting lines both sweet and savoury are key, and what works best for our customers are individual items that can bought is a single gift or put in a hamper.  Ready-made gift packs are rarely taken up by our customers, however, this year this may be different with wanting a quick purchase so we’re re-introducing a few again.”

Stocking for optimum interest

Has your Christmas stock started to make its way out of the storeroom and onto the shelves yet?

“We began introducing seasonal and festive lines early September,” says Simon Drury, ambient buying manager of retail group Booths. “At Christmas, we undoubtedly enjoy a wider customer base, as people come from far and wide to shop our range of locally-sourced produce, and festive food and drink. Our Christmas snacks, confectionery and seasonal biscuits are store cupboard essentials to see families through the festive season. Meanwhile, Christmas crackers and puddings are also ‘go-to’ products for our customers at Christmas. Many people eagerly await the launch of the our Christmas book which showcases some of the tastiest food, and return to our store each year to grab their copy! Customers can then either head into store, or place their orders online.”

“October time is when we start really stocking Christmas products,” says Nick from Suffolk Food Hall. “I would say that reflects in some of the purchasing, but it obviously ramps up in November and the start of December. That’s when these products really fly off the shelf. Also many of them are included in bespoke hampers, which customers start thinking of in October too. Although saying that we are often busy right up to the last minute on Christmas Eve, those last-minute shoppers (and I’m guilty too!) like to leave it late.”

Others are getting in there sooner. “Normally we’d start stocking in the first week in October but this year we’re putting out phase one of Christmas stock (stock that has already been received) at the end of September,” says Sue Johns. “There is a sense more than ever this year of ‘buy it now’ whilst people feel safer in the knowledge that they have that money to spend. We’re fortunate to be in a tourism area too so visitors like to choose gifts that might seem slightly different to what they’ll find at home, or an item that they see for their Christmas. In terms of ambient items, it’s usually complimentary products such as cheese biscuits or pates, chocolate again, and local produce. The increase is usually for fresh produce but they’re also more likely to pick up an item for a gift as opposed to the Christmas table.”