In just a few weeks' time, millions of us will receive Christmas cards depicting a familiar scene smiling faces at the fireside, surrounded by decorations and presents, and in their hands a glass of wine, or brandy, or egg-nog.

But that rosy image is misleading, say the suppliers of beer, ales, stouts and ciders to the convenience retail trade. In fact consumers party-goers in particular are just as likely to stick with the longer, lighter and refreshing alternatives that they provide, and that's why they believe c-stores shouldn't be swayed into compromising on their chilled beer and cider offer as the festive season gets under way.

"Peak seasonal times like Christmas offer independent retailers a huge opportunity to boost their Long Alcoholic Drinks (LADs) sales," says Shaun Heyes, head of customer marketing (off-trade) and category marketing, at Scottish & Newcastle UK. "The run up to Christmas and New Year sparks impulse purchases for party-goers and family gatherings, making the convenience store and off-licence important destinations for shoppers."

Heyes believes getting enough of the right brands in the right formats is absolutely crucial to avoid costly out of stocks and reap the rewards from this key trading season.

"Stocking the leading, well-supported LADs brands is vital, because shoppers will be purchasing for family, friends and unannounced visitors during the festivities and will look for well-known brands that will please a wider audience," he says.

S&N UK's portfolio includes Foster's, Heineken, Kronenbourg 1664, Bulmers Original, Strongbow and John Smith's Extra Smooth "big names and sure-fire best sellers that cover all the bases," according to Heyes.

Also urging retailers to climb aboard the brandwagon is Simon Harrison, commercial director, independent off trade at InBev UK, which supplies Stella Artois, Budweiser and Beck's. "It's important they display top-selling brands prominently to speed up the purchase decision, because convenience shoppers are more time pressured at Christmas than any other time of the year," he says.

"Big brands are the key drivers of festive business because they have a large number of loyalists and this is boosted at Christmas because occasional beer buyers come into the market and look for brands they know."

He recommends 'decluttering' the fixture in the pre-Christmas period to free up space for big brands.

Both suppliers say that retailers shouldn't be fooled into thinking that just because it's cold outside customers won't be looking for chilled drinks. "Research shows that around a fifth of lager buyers and a quarter of cider buyers are willing to pay more for a chilled product," says Heyes. "This gives independent retailers the edge over supermarkets and allows them to add a premium onto the price of their stock. Customers can pick up cold beer or cider on the way to a party.

"Seven out of ten independent shoppers drink beer within two hours of buying it, which highlights the importance of chilling in the independent sector," Harrison adds.

Rethinking cider

Another perception that needs challenging concerns cider. It's just a summer drink, isn't it? Absolutely not, says Chris Carr, managing director of Merrydown Cider.

According to Nielsen, average weekly sales of bottled cider saw an 81% increase in the two weeks prior to Christmas last year, which Carr attributes to "the lasting legacy from the phenomenal growth in cider it's no longer categorised as a summer-only drink.

"The Merrydown consumer loves the classy-looking glass bottles and gold and silver labelling and the very name itself evokes a cosy warm feeling," he says.

S&N recommends devoting 18% of your LADs fixture to cider.

The total cider category in impulse is showing value growth of 5.8% with Strongbow accounting for about a third of value share. But it's the top end of the market where there's real movement premium cider which accounts for 29.1% of the total market in impulse (MAT value share).

Flavoured ciders such as S&N's Jacques suit the Christmas mood, says the company, as an over-ice alternative to wine.

Ale and hearty

Darker beers have rather lost their place on the c-store shelves but Christmas brings a blip that's worth exploiting. "Ale is still a profitable category for retailers," says S&N's Hayes. "Demand for ale goes up in winter and retailers need to ensure they devote 8% of their LADs fixture to ale and stock it with the leading brands."

He points out that John Smith's Extra Smooth is the UK's number one ale with a 37.5% share of the traditional canned ale segment three times the size of its nearest competitor, he says.

Rather than marginalising the category, some stores have prospered as ale specialists, taking their cue from the wine trade and training staff to make recommendations, suggest beers to match particular meals, and communicate the history and provenance of the brands.

And when it comes to stout, there really is only one name to mention this year. With Guinness celebrating its 250th anniversary, a £5m Christmas campaign includes newly redesigned packaging for Guinness Draught in a Can, with new POS and consumer advertising in the run up to Christmas.

Guinness is currently outperforming the beer market by 9% volume and 4% value, says supplier Diageo.

What about the women?

There's one sector of society that doesn't get full value from the beer category, and it's a big one.

"Our research shows that currently only 6% of women choose to drink beer during family parties, for example, favouring wine or spirits," says Kirsty Derry, managing director of the BitterSweet Partnership, a business set up by brewer Molson Coors to change the image of beer among women in the UK.

"The idea is to offer a more refreshing alternative to wines and spirits beer can be a lighter option, making it suitable for all of those Christmas get-togethers, and it's often a better match than wine with delicious festive food," Derry adds.

Bitterseweet's website,, suggests 12 UK beers which it believes women will enjoy on festive occasions.