Speciality food retailers prepare for an omnichannel Christmas

14 July 2020, 09:02 AM
  • The Christmas season is set to look a lot different this year – and independents are keen to let customers know that it’s business as usual, but with enhanced benefits

Speciality food retailers prepare for an omnichannel Christmas

Retailers, brands and distributors have been adapting left, right and centre since the beginning of lockdown in March, and whilst flexibility and innovation will still be valuable, coupling this with going back to the roots of indie retail could prove to be the perfect marriage.

“COVID has brought both challenges and opportunities to our industry, says Nikki Castley from Dunfermline-based distributor, The Cress Company. “It has not necessarily come down to survival of the fittest, but rather how quickly independents have needed to adapt and change in order to continue trading during these strange times. Christmas, unlike so many events, won’t be cancelled or postponed this year, and we all need to be prepared.”

The Christmas period typically sees a higher basket spend for food retailers, and even though we are heading closer to recession, many companies and retailers are still optimistic. After all, Christmas is a special time of year, and amidst this global pandemic, consumers are seeking out those small moments of escapism, comfort and the occasional treat, key messages that could help boost sales.

Many businesses are already preparing for the busy festive period, despite the uncertainty around what type of restrictions and social distancing measures will be in place closer to the time. So what will a Covid-19 Christmas look like?

Rob Copley, chair of the Farm Retail Association (FRA) and owner of Farmer Copley’s Farm Shop in Pontefract, is emphatic that “Christmas is going to be big,” and this, combined with ongoing Covid restrictions, is presenting him with both an opportunity and a worry. “When people have to pull their belts in, as they are now, they tend to let them out at Christmas,” he predicts. “I anticipate that this year many people will be eager to spend on Christmas luxury. Our greatest challenge will be managing the crowds as we’re anticipating a very busy time throughout November and December and controlling numbers with social distancing in place will have an impact on how well we trade.”

Tapping into customers’ desires
While some retailers may have previously relied on high Christmas footfall, Covid-19 restrictions have seen many pivot their sales strategy by offering click-and-collect, call-and-collect and online delivery options. These same services will prove essential in helping retailers cater to customers who may still be unable or unwilling to shop in-store closer to Christmas, and in deflecting a high volume of customers visiting stores with social distancing measures in place.

“We launched our click-and-collect using WooCommerce during the crisis and we will continue with offering a full-blown service,” continues Rob Copley. “We’ll add an extra day of collection for Christmas orders, with two-hour timed slots. We’ll also be promoting our online ordering and deliveries. We don’t anticipate that we’ll have any difficulty in fulfillment with stock, and we’ll be bringing in half a dozen or so extra staff to deal with extra demand. To help spread footfall we will be extending our opening hours, and offering special Christmas shopping evenings with Prosecco for the loyal customers who belong to our VIP programme.”

As a working farm, Morton’s Family Farm has been operating as normal throughout the lockdown, placing chicks ready for Christmas deliveries. “Customers are being urged to order early to guarantee a delivery slot,” says Rob Morton. “I recommend retailers speak with a courier company soon, as there will be a huge demand for delivery slots this year and generally they give priority to year-round customers. We already operate an e-commerce website where customers can order either a meat box or our range of free-range turkeys at Christmas. Sending fresh produce does have its complications so packaging is key, as is keeping the customer informed at all times.”

Omnichannel strategies
According to the latest statistics from Kantar Worldpanel the huge increase in home deliveries meant nearly one in five British households bought over the internet in the month to mid-June, totalling 5.7 million shoppers. It’s clear that e-commerce will still play a key role in everything from buying groceries for Christmas dinner to shopping for gifts for foodies.

Speaking from his own experience during lockdown, Lord Newborough, owner of Rhug Estate, has seen a huge surge in online shopping and home deliveries of his organic meat and farm shop products. He says, “As we are now coming out of lockdown we can start to concentrate on the normal calendar to our business and that includes preparing for Christmas customers. We usually see a small proportion of our organic turkeys and geese sold online, but we’re already planning for this to increase this year and looking to how we can maximise the increased demand in online customers to shop with us in the run-up to Christmas.

“Our Rhug Organic Boxes have been highly successful in tempting new customers during lockdown, including speciality boxes such as BBQ essentials, luxury steaks collection and roasting joints, which not only include our award-winning meat but all the farm shop essentials to accompany them, including cooking sauces, gravy and, of course, beer and wine.

“We are now looking at how we can entice both our new and old organic turkey and geese customers to continue to shop with us in the run up to Christmas. We’ve always been keen to meet our customers by encouraging them to visit our farm shop to collect their turkey, but I think this will be more difficult than ever this winter thanks to Covid-19. We are currently creating an improved online shop to be launched in August, so our customers will find ordering and arranging home delivery even easier than before.”

Standing out from the crowd
Marketing and communications are always important at this time of year, given the competitive nature of the season. It’s important to keep customers informed about any key dates such as when you will begin selling festive products and deadlines for placing orders for the big day. Digital channels such as newsletters, emails and social media will also play a big role in engaging customers to find out what they want this year, as well as promoting products and gifts for the season. And, of course, selling USPs to consumers encourages them to support independents rather than reverting to supermarkets.

Emphasising positive messages is vital. “An unexpected positive from lockdown, and one where we’ve managed to gain an advantage over mainstream supermarkets, is the consumers’ realisation that the environment they live in has been able to breath better with less pollution and environmental damage,” adds Lord Newborough. “Customers are converting to organic as a healthier way of living and, of course, a more sustainable way to manage the land. Long may this continue as lockdown restrictions are eased and we’re all allowed to travel further afield again. In relation to Christmas I hope more turkey lovers will convert to an organic bird.”

No matter what your strategy, one key takeaway from lockdown has been the importance of being flexible. With so much still unknown, it’s worth planning for several eventualities and rolling out different strategies to mimic various scenarios. Stay in touch with your customers and focus on doing what you do best as a business.

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