Airborne reindeer, toy-obsessed elves and Mr Blobby reaching number one in the charts - it's fair to say that things are a little different around Christmas time. So it's hardly surprising that convenience store shoppers' buying habits change drastically over the festive period.

Spontaneous parties often take place over Christmas, so retailers should offer inspiration in-store to tempt shoppers, says Goodfella's head of UK marketing Kevan Mallinder.

"With consumers more likely to entertain at home, retailers should make sure they stock plenty of party food ideas and products to make the perfect buffet," he advises. He claims that pizza is a good choice as it can be popped in the oven and ready in a few minutes and adds: "Consumers are looking more for last-minute, easy purchases to feed or entertain family and friends."

A key motivation for shoppers at Christmas is to ensure that their families and friends are happy and well fed, agrees Chester Robinson, head of trade marketing at Birds Eye. "There will be a mixture of planned shopping trips and impromptu top-up trips during this time," he says. He recommends Birds Eye Chicken Dippers or Chicken Goujons as particularly suitable party food.

McCain's potato wedges are also popular Christmas party snacks, claims spokeswoman Alex Whitelaw. "They are growing at 15% in value and volume, and sell well during the Christmas period as they are a great accompaniment for festive parties," she says.

And it's not just hot snacks that are getting in on the party action - cheese is also popular for entertaining, according to Will Pritchard, Dairy Crest customer marketing manager. "Predominantly, all of our Cathedral City lines are good sellers over Christmas, partly because of how cheese is used before and during this period, both for snacking and meals."

Trading up

In addition to buying standard Cheddar, consumers also want to to indulge themselves over Christmas. “A lot of consumers want to celebrate Christmas in style,” says Pritchard. As such, he’s expecting Cathedral City Vintage 20 Cheddar, launched in October, to be a hit at Christmas dinner parties. Butter is also set to cash in on consumer demand for premium products. “Both spreadable and block butter should see good growth over Christmas due to the perceived quality and indulgent properties of both and also the increase seen across households of home cooking where block butter especially plays a significant role.” The trend towards upgrading over Christmas has also reached the sausage category. “At Christmas consumers are willing to spend more and the trend is for them to trade up,” says Ruth White, national account controller for GB brands at Kerry Foods. “Porkinsons sausages are the fastest growing premium sausage (+40%) in the market, and are therefore well placed to help drive category value over the Christmas period,” she says. She claims it is of utmost importance for c-stores to stock branded offerings at Christmas. Robinson agrees: “Traditionally, consumers purchase more brands over the Christmas period so that they can treat their family and friends and we expect this trend to continue in 2008.”

Top tips
● Availability. This must be 100%, especially when customer demand is highest over Christmas. Research shows that if a product is unavailable twice in a row then shoppers will look elsewhere - permanently

● Cleanliness. Keep your chiller spotless as it's the hygiene benchmark for your store

● Rotation. Always rotate date codes and pull old stock forwards

● Out-of-date stock. Don't mark down, it gives the wrong impression

● Sales peaks. Understand your sales peaks and range and replenish your chiller accordingly

● Help customers shop. Keep your range, segmentation and fixture communication simple

● Visibility. Your chilled offer should be visible from the front of store

Source: Dairy Crest's Dairy Convenience Review 2008
He also believes that the frozen category in particular is set to benefit. “Consumers are increasingly opting to buy frozen products as an equally healthy alternative to more expensive fresh and chilled items and we believe the trend for stocking up over Christmas will see this behaviour continue.”

Roast dinner delights

As well as party food, no Christmas is complete without the traditional roast dinner favourites. Despite the current economic climate, the British Turkey Federation doesn’t expect to see a downturn in sales. “Economic pressures mean many people will be looking to make the most of their budgets this Christmas, so our message to them is that a whole bird offers exceptional value for money,” says Catriona Lee, chairman of the British Turkey Federation’s marketing committee. “A whole bird is traditional but once they get their turkey home, consumers can always remove the legs before cooking and freeze them for a meal later in the year.”

Value for money will be the key focus of the Federation’s Christmas campaign, which is due to start on December 1 and is expected to reach 35 million households.

Meanwhile, Aunt Bessie’s is hoping for success with another Christmas dinner regular – the Yorkshire pudding. The company made a £5m investment in its Yorkshire pudding range in autumn, which included new product innovation, packaging redesign and heavyweight marketing support.

McCain has also pulled out all the stops with its roast potatoes offering. “Our traditional Home Roasts are popular all year round, but a particular best-seller at Christmas,” says Whitelaw. “We launched a premium range in September, Simply Gorgeous, which includes Chunky Chips basted in beef dripping and Roasting Potatoes, basted in goose fat. They are the ultimate indulgence this Christmas.”

McCain is supporting the launch with a media spend of £3m, to include press and online media. No Christmas dinner is complete without a few sausages, though. Richmond sausages are still Kerry Foods’ top-selling sausage all year round, having enjoyed a 25% uplift in sales value within convenience stores last Christmas.

“However, the Skinless and Thin variants also become more important at this time of year as they often form part of the Christmas dinner repertoire,” adds White. She predicts that c-stores are in for a very merry Christmas indeed. “Convenience retailers are potentially well placed to benefit from the credit crunch. Consumers will still be seeking value for money, so promotional activity will remain key to driving sales over the Christmas period.” Pritchard also advises c-stores to make the most of promotional opportunities: “During this Christmas period, most shopping is top-up shopping across convenience stores, therefore keeping the range simple, well communicated and offering the right promotional deals will allow store owners to meet their shoppers’ needs.” So what are you waiting for? It’s time to get the party started.