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Christmas is the biggest time of year for retailers as shoppers come out in full force to put on the year’s most impressive festive feast or seasonal soiree. But with inflation currently at the highest rate in 40 years and an ongoing cost-of-living crisis, how can indies make this Yuletide a successful one and offer a careful balance of quality and value?
The Christmas calendar
The lead-up to Christmas is an important time for any retailer, but for indies, it could be the make or break for their seasonal success.
For Heather Copley, co-owner of Farmer Copleys, it’s all about hosting events to get customers excited about the festive season. “We are full steam ahead preparing for Christmas, we are nervous but confident that we will be the place to go and experience Christmas, to get that Christmas feeling, coupled with superb tasting foods.
“To support this, we have many in-store and on-farm events both large and small throughout November and December planned, thus we are hoping to drive footfall to us rather than an alternative destination, with the aim of providing a cost-effective ‘day out’ which drives footfall of customers and spend.
Amy Coleman, farm shop manager at the Rhug Estate, adds, “We are starting to put together our Christmas event calendar and we have a few shows lined up where we will be exhibiting our Rhug Estate hampers and taking meat orders for Christmas.”
But Simon Jones, co-owner of Forest Deli is more concerned about getting his store ready for increased footfall and laying on extra staff. “We have seasonal helpers already booked in as we have a number of fairly large corporate hamper orders, which take a lot of time to put together and to assist with front-of-house and backroom tasks to ensure we are always working a day ahead on orders.
“We always start to build up supplies of the ambient stock from now on which spreads the cost as well as ensuring we have all the essentials ready.”
Cost is something that Marc Smith, managing director at Smith & Ellis, is also conscious of. “This year will have a different emphasis for us, that of cost: we have already experienced price shocks for all of our stock, packaging and now energy. For us to remain commercially viable, we have to pass these cost increases on to our customers which will have an impact on consumers’ overall Christmas spend - this will coincide with many of our customers facing increased energy bills at home too, so must be considered carefully.
“We also work closely with the local farms to ensure that we have at least our minimum requirements ready for the period (plus a safety buffer - which usually gets sold in the last few days before we close!)”
The power of e-commerce
During the pandemic, online shopping surged in popularity as consumers faced restrictions and lockdowns, disrupting their usual habits. But with ‘normal life’ back in full swing, will e-commerce perform as strongly for Christmas 2022?
For Amy, “Christmas is always our busiest time of the year online, and I expect this year to be no different. We are working hard behind the scenes at the moment, getting all the products on the system, taking new images of products and putting all the procedures in place to make sure we provide the best possible service, that is straightforward and allows the customer to relax knowing they are going to have all the ingredients needed for Christmas dinner, delivered to their door. We deliver right up until a few days before the big day as well!”
Marc is positive about a strong online performance this festive season too. “Last year was our largest online Christmas period sales total, and we expect that trend to continue. We maintain and prepare our online shop throughout the year, which means that we simply only have to ‘enable’ the festive products to be ready. We simultaneously manage the capacity requirement (staff) about three to four weeks prior to the rush.”
Getting online ordering systems ready is a job that Simon also takes seriously. “The website is being updated with all new stock photography and also a ‘live’ stock system, so if a line sells out it won’t be available to see on the site which simultaneously helps customers and us.
“We have always had a good gift trade from the website, especially the last two years with Covid restrictions. As we will all hopefully be able to see family and friends this year, we are anticipating that online ordering may drop a little.”
Like Simon, Heather is expecting a return to in-person shopping this year as consumers seek out a personal touch and friendly faces over what can be a difficult time for many. “We feel people will probably visit shops in person more this year.
“But we do expect gift cards purchased via our website to increase, including our experience afternoon tea events. We are ensuring that our website presence is completely up to date with our full brochure available online to support sales across the business in whatever format the customers decide.”
Having said that, having a fully functioning website alone won’t guarantee sales, and savvy retailers will be using every digital tool at their disposal to drive footfall and clicks this festive season.
As Amy explains, “Social media and newsletters are a very important part of increasing footfall during this time of year. It’s a very competitive time of year and you need to be able to offer your customers something different. To achieve this, we look at holding special events, promotions, and benefits for visitors to enjoy and we advertise these through the power of social media and our weekly newsletter.”
Marc agrees, adding, “With so many people now using social media almost as a way of life, a strong presence is necessary to maintain visibility of our business – what we do, and what our core values are. Consistency is the key here, a quick splurge of activity in the last few weeks will not work - it takes some time to build a loyal social media base, and that includes carefully curated content, regular (but not excessive) posting, and prompt engagement with our fans.
“This consistent engagement keeps us relevant and visible in timelines, and allows us an excellent virtual shopfront for us to showcase our festive offerings.”
But for Simon, old-school methods work just as well. He explains, “All the social media channels are invaluable at getting messages out to customers, but there is also a very fine line between doing just enough and too much. We are launching a loyalty card this month for customers, and will also use our mailing list to keep people informed of events. This enables us to inform those who have signed up to receive advance notice and early booking of dates for tasting sessions in the evenings in our Tasting Corner.
“These events we have found are definitely the best way to engage with our customers and for us to understand our customer needs and also an excellent opportunity for them to ‘try before they buy’ new cheeses and other products.”
Offering quality and value
With rising costs a major concern for shoppers and retailers alike this winter, getting the balance right between quality and value is more important than ever before.
This is something Amy is very conscious of at the Rhug Estate, as she tells Speciality Food, “Christmas is a very expensive time of year for most, and that’s why it is important to find the balance between quality and value for customers.”
In fact, Amy recommends making sure that shoppers know that when they buy from you, they are getting something the multiples simply can’t offer. “At Rhug, we offer a premium product and to ensure value for money we make sure that we offer a top level of customer service to go along with it.
“Whether this is delivering the parcels ourselves when the delivery companies aren’t coping (one year, Lord Newborough drove down to London on Christmas Eve to ensure a family received their Christmas turkey on time!), offering a click-and-collect service so people can avoid the hustle and bustle, taking heavy shopping to the car for those struggling or offering our loyal customers a gift on us.
“People are not just paying for a product, they are paying for the whole experience which we always endeavour to be the best around!”
Simon agrees, adding, “For all businesses and customers, costs are increasing across the board, for us the key is to not compromise on quality. We focus on local suppliers and our customers really do understand that purchasing a gift hamper from us really does help multiple local businesses. We know we can’t compete on price with the supermarkets overall, but we can on the quality of product and service.”
For Heather, it’s all about making sure there is something for every budget that still delivers on quality. “We have decided to streamline the products that are offered but keeping quality and local as key as always. We will have cheese truckles with special volume prices sold from the new self-service deli, then the artisan cheeses in large cutting cheese displays serviced by the deli team cut to order.
“These are products that will still be required and sought after by our customers, and we are trying to be very savvy for our customers and make savings on purchasing and service style where appropriate, coupled with enhanced experience retailing.
Simon also caters to a variety of budgets at Forest Deli, explaining, “In store and online we offer a “build your own hamper” so our customers can add exactly what they want and work to their budget. One invaluable point is to also have pre-prepared gift hampers at specific price points so that whatever the budget a customer can purchase a quality gift within their price range.”
The challenge in this is demonstrating a balance of quality and value to the wider community. As Marc explains, “We ask the question ‘Why should I buy from Smith & Ellis?’ and this is where we can answer that question and describe in appropriate levels of detail how we can make peoples’ meals the best they can be at the best value they can find.
“This is all based (of course) on a foundation of making sure that each part of our own sourcing and preparation keeps those two features in mind at each step, and underlined with the mantra ‘Don’t be greedy’ - we see this every year from some businesses and it doesn’t take savvy consumers long to realise that they are being exploited.”
As Heather concludes, “Fingers crossed we’ve got it right. We are under no illusion that we will have to go the extra mile for our customers to ensure we all have a good Christmas, and customer service is going to be key to everything!”
Christmas content supported by Woolcool – the pioneers of sustainable temperature-controlled packaging.