There are certain things that take place every Christmas. Something miserable happens on EastEnders, we’re disappointed that it’s not snowing, and some really terrible gifts are given to friends and family, bought on last-minute panic shopping trips. While the first two are out of your control, the last is something you can help with, by having a range of spirits that make the perfect gift.

Adam Hogwood, manager of Morrison’s Budgens of Broadstairs in Kent, says Christmas alcohol is a lucrative market for him. “Alcohol is always massive at Christmas for us,” he says. “There’s a lot of competition in the area, but we still do very well come Christmas.”

Adam focuses on the tried-and-tested sellers rather than going for every new product on the market. “We’ve tried the NPD in the past, but besides selling one or two of them, we end getting stuck with them for months afterwards,” he says.

“We’ll add one or two new lines at most, but our focus is on the well-known brands such as Smirnoff or Jack Daniel’s that always do well.”

According to Conviviality Retail head of licensed buying Matt Cain, the Christmas alcohol gifting season is a prime time for the top brands. “After birthdays, Christmas is the most important gifting occasion and all of the major brands recognise this,” he says. “They produce a variety of gift sets and limited-edition bottles for the season.”

He says that the old favourites always do well. “Gift sets from Jack Daniel’s and Absolut Vodka sold well last year,” says Cain. “Vodka is still our most popular spirit for gifting, but we’ve seen a continuous rise in sales of premium malt whisky at Bargain Booze over the past few years.”

Alcohol free beer

It may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s vital to make some space in your alcohol section for alcohol-free beer, as the wider choice of products available and the responsible drinking message have helped generate interest in the category.

According to a ComRes survey commissioned by AB InBev UK, almost half (49%) of British adults believe alcohol-free beer is more socially acceptable than it was five years ago.

With the sub-category growing 8.4% in the off trade over the past year (IRI off trade MAT week ending 21 June 2014), and brands such as Beck’s Blue growing 20.9% in volume sales, they shouldn’t be overlooked.

The ComRes survey found that 43% of adults have tried alcohol-free beer, with 54% of men having consumed it. The main reasons cited for trying it were that they were driving (46%), or that they were curious (39%).

The research also found four regions had more adults that have tried alcohol-free beer than the national average: Yorkshire and Humberside (52%); Scotland (48%); East of England (47%); and West Midlands (46%).

AB InBev UK marketing manager Jennifer Anton says offering choice is key. “It is encouraging to see customers are comfortable ordering alcohol-free beers when out with friends,” she says. “Offering consumers choice is an important part of our commitment to responsible drinking and we are proud to brew Beck’s Blue, the market-leading alcohol-free beer.”

Pernod Ricard UK off trade channel director Chris Shead says that convenience is missing out on a big opportunity. The company believes there is a £13m incremental sales opportunity in premium spirits alone this Christmas. “The independent sector is missing a trick in premium spirits,” he says. “In the sector, value sales of premium spirits have grown by £8m between Christmas of 2009 and Christmas 2013, increasing its share from 16.4% to 18.3%, yet it’s still underperforming compared with the multiples whose value sales have increased by £95m over the same period to a 30% share. If the independents could create a 30% share of sales, it would equate to £13m of incremental sales so the opportunity is massive.”

He’s not the only one to feel this way. Diageo’s head of category development James Cragg says that spirits are the key to a successful Christmas. “Last year spirits sales grew £77m in the 12 weeks to Christmas (off and on trade), faster than any other total beverage alcohol category,” he says. “It proved that if you’re going to win at Christmas, you need to win with spirits.”

He says there is a £340m opportunity in the off trade channel and that retailers can grow sales if they follow some simple steps. “The top 10 brands delivered 46% of spirits category sales in the Christmas period, so making these brands available and highly visible is crucial,” says Cragg. “Some 39% of annual premium sales are in the 12 weeks to Christmas, so it’s a great time to emphasise premium products in store. Innovation delivered £14m growth to the off trade last year and gifting packs grew at 31% last Christmas, so having an impactful presence of the big innovation and gifting brands is crucial to drive sales.”

Saki Ghafoor, who runs Nisa stores in Northumberland and Tyne & Wear, says people are more likely to treat themselves and others at Christmas, leading to trading up and increased basket spend. “When Christmas starts getting closer we make sure to start stocking more premium spirits and some gift packs,” says Saki. “It means you have to make space for them, but it’s worth it as people buy them as last-minute gifts for people and for parties. Some of the more premium bottles and gift sets can be quite expensive, so selling those really improves value sales in the category.”

Shead believes there’s one reason why spirits in convenience aren’t doing as well as in the multiples. “Spirits are behind the counter so it’s harder for retailers to take advantage,” he points out. “Ranging is a weak link for the channel. There’s not enough thinking about how they can develop the top end of the category. It can turn into a vicious circle. Some retailers believe the demand of these products don’t exist so don’t bother stocking them, and therefore people will just buy them elsewhere.”

Time for wine

Shead also believes there is an opportunity to improve wine sales over Christmas. “Premium wines are already the star performer in impulse at Christmas, and with both new and existing shoppers continuing to trade up it is essential that we continue to drive this opportunity.”

He says this can be done by ensuring premium wines are highly visible in the store, keeping the category simply and focusing on sparkling wine.

Continental Wine & Foods marketing manager Amy Ledger is confident that this year will be a good one for wine sales as she says the economy has changed wine shopping habits for the better.

“With the more buoyant and positive economic environment comes an increased consumer confidence and the willingness to loosen the purse strings in order to celebrate, experiment and have a little fun,” she says.

“Furthermore, we are starting to see a little more experimentation, particularly with wine choices - there are very few bottles of wine available for less than the £5 mark and, as a result, consumers are more willing to try something different within their price range.”

Ledger says that the independent sector hasn’t been intimidated by the multiples in the wine sector. “The cash and carry and independent sector has been quick to realise the need to compete strongly with the supermarket buying power and has become more aggressive and competitive with its promotions on wines, therefore consumers no longer see independent retailers as the ‘expensive alternatives to supermarkets’ and are more likely to impulse buy wine when shopping for their big night in.”

This impulsive shop can be used to retailers’ advantage, says Treasury Wine Estates head of customer marketing Shaun Heyes. “Figures show that wine above £6 gains share during Christmas as consumers trade up and treat themselves during the festive period,” he says.

“In fact, last year sales of wines over £6 represented more than 50% of all wine sales. However, wines over £10 increased their share by up to 6% to reach 12.9%, highlighting just how important it is for retailers to stock a balanced range of wine across different price points during this period.”

Heyes says the regular wine shopper is one that convenience retailers should be looking to win over. “Wine shoppers are very different to those in other FMCG categories,” he says. “Spanning a wide demographic and a diverse consumer landscape, wine shoppers consider taste and quality to be of much greater importance, over and above price. Wine shoppers buy less frequently, but spend more time when they do, and this behaviour presents convenience retailers with a great sales opportunity.”

He believes these shoppers can be twice as valuable as the average shopper. “Wine shoppers spend more than double the average convenience shopper spends, buying more items per visit and spending longer in store than the average shopper,” says Heyes. “By ensuring they have the right range, retailers can attract these higher-value shoppers and grow their sales as a result.”

Sparkling success

Your customers may want their Christmas to go off with a bang, and what better way to do that than with sparkling wine. Heyes says the fizzy stuff is becoming a popular option among British households. “Figures show that one in five households buy sparkling wine at Christmas, so retailers should also make sure they stock a good range of chilled sparkling wine throughout the festive period,” he says.

“Retailers looking to fully take advantage of the seasonal sales on offer need to adjust their range now otherwise they’ll miss out on the sales opportunity available both before and during the Christmas period.”

Freixenet managing director Damien Clarke says sparkling wines present an affordable treat. “Shoppers are looking for great value during the festive season; sparkling wine is well placed to deliver this,” he says. “For retailers wanting to create new sales opportunities, sparkling wines, and Freixenet in particular, provide the perfect solution for shoppers who want a quality brand they trust, but at a price which is more accessible to them.

“The sparkling wine category represents a huge sales opportunity; the category is now growing at 20% and is worth £521m,” adds Clarke. “It is also the fastest growing BWS category in both the on and off trade, and the only category in double-digit growth.”

Adam is banking on Christmas alcohol sales sparkling this year. “Sparkling wine is like the cider boom of a couple of years ago,” he says. “It’s massive for us and we’re going to be increasing facings of it for Christmas.”

How to increase spirit sales

Premium spirits are now popular throughout the year, with £1 out of every £5 spent on spirits in the off trade attributed to the spirits at the higher end. However, at Christmas this rises to £1 in every £4.

If you want to get your share, Pernod Ricard has set out some simple rules for success in spirits this Christmas.

It urges retailers to meet the opportunity for trading up by having a premium option across all spirits, and to drive a sense of occasion at the fixture using seasonal POS material.

It also recommends making the range more visible; get spirits out from behind the counter and enhance your premium range in the run up to Christmas to make the most of the party season.

Put the focus on gift packs, too, to attract that last-minute impulse purchase.

As with any convenience store, Adam has space constraints so he has to sacrifice something to accommodate these extra facings. “The extra facings will come at the expense of the Old World whites and rosés as they’re not doing as well as they used to,” he says. “Rosé used to be the go-to wine for customers who weren’t sure what to buy, or wanted something sweet, but now sparkling wine has replaced that. It’s also more of a party wine so sales grow during Christmas.”

With the trade-up in mind, he recently introduced a £13 Prosecco that has exceeded expectations. “We thought it would do okay but struggle when stocked beside our £7 Prosecco, yet sales have been massive,” explains Adam. “People are willing to spend that little bit more for something premium and we’ll be pushing that this Christmas.”

As well as the trade up, there’s an opportunity to sell in those little extras. “Retailers can add value to customers’ gift purchases by offering gift bags or a wrapping service over the festive season,” explains Cain. “It’s a simple way of encouraging gift purchases.”

Donna and Bruce Morgan of Brownlie’s of Biggar, Lanarkshire, are keen on the upsell in their award-winning alcohol section. They won the Off Licence Store of the Year award at the 2014 Convenience Retail Awards, partly for their excellent way of adding something extra to the category. “We keep a display of gift bags beside the spirits display so that customers coming in for a last-minute gift can pick them up straight away,” says Donna. “It doesn’t take up much space, but it’s another item in the basket for no work at all.”

Cheers for beers

Besides the gifting and premium aspect of the festive season, other areas of alcohol also need care and attention. Conviviality’s Cain says retailers shouldn’t overlook beers and ales. “Retailers should make room for Christmas ales,” he says. “Last year the Marstons 6x500ml pack of Christmas ales was one of our biggest sellers in the beer and cider category.”

Adam agrees that multipacks come into their own at Christmas. “People have a bit more time off so they’re getting the beers in for the holidays,” he says. “Four-packs of beers still do well at Christmas with some people buying them as gifts, but the larger packs are big sellers so we always put more of them on display.”

Saki also goes big on beers and ciders come the festive season. “We’ll have plenty of promotions in beer and cider because customers will be attending lots of parties and drinking at home more over Christmas and want to pick up what they need to do that.”

Ones to watch

Champagne sales grew 6% in the first quarter of the year, the first rise since the second quarter of 2013

Rum was the spirit of choice this summer with quarterly sales up 8% and sales of flavoured/spiced rum increasing by 34% over the July, August and September

Sales of blended whisky in supermarkets and other shops fell 1.7% to 49.7m litres over the period

Vodka sales were up 0.3% to 44.6m litres

40% of British shoppers bought sparkling wine over the past 12 months.

Source: WSTA, Nielsen, Kantar

There’s also a chance to cross-merchandise. “Complementary products, including crisps, nuts and chocolates, should be merchandised close to key sellers in the beer and cider category,” adds Cain.

The cider category has seen some new entrants of late and may be one area retailers need to pay close attention to come the festive season. Kopparberg customer marketing manager Ben Turner says it’s the perfect time to re-evaluate cider. He explains: “Ensuring incremental space for cider, whether that’s in fridges or on stacks, will help drive sales,” he says. “Multipacks are increasingly successful in the convenience channel and Kopparberg accounts for more than 90% of fruit multipack sales.”

Debs Carter, SHS Drinks marketing director of alcohol, agrees there’s a big opportunity for cider come December. “Christmas and New Year is the second biggest peak for cider sales after the summer, and what both of these periods have in common is the fact that consumers socialise more at these times of the year,” she says.

She adds that retailers have the opportunity to experiment with products more at this time of year, too. “Heritage ciders are having a positive impact on the category both in terms of performance and building a more premium image for cider. Value sales of heritage ciders have grown by 22% over the past two years, but they may not be getting the shelf space they deserve.”

Carter recommends that 45% of cider space should be allocated to glass bottles, 35% to cans, and the other 20% to PETs, and that the brands should vary where possible.

“The brand mix should focus on premium, heritage and mainstream brands, which will add interest to the fixture, offer consumers wider choice and appeal to a wider audience.”

Merrydown in Christmas push

SHS Drinks is supporting the Merrydown brand with a variety of seasonal promotions in wholesalers as well as a digital and social media campaign offering consumers the chance to win Christmas-themed prizes.

Cordon range gets new look

Freixenet’s Cordon Negro has undergone a makeover in time for the festive season. With a new pack design and supported by a £1m campaign, the Negro variant is the first of the Cordon range to be overhauled, with others to follow.

Spirits gift sets

Pernod Ricard UK has introduced a selection of spirits gifting sets. Under the Jameson brand comes the 70cl core expression pack (rrp £21.95), a pack with two branded tumblers (rrp £25), and a Trilogy set with 200ml versions of its Irish Whiskey, Select Reserve and Gold Reserve (rrp £34.99). For Absolut, there is a collection of five miniatures (rrp £12) and the ‘Perfect Chill’ collection of five 5cl bottles (rrp £12).

Rosé Prosecco from CWF

CWF has added a rosé variant of its Casa Gheller Prosecco, designed to capitalise on the growing demand for Prosecco. It has an ABV of 11.5% and comes in cases of six.

Going for gold

Diageo has launched a limited-edition Baileys Chocolat Luxe gold bottle for the festive season. Available now, the gold bottle will be supported by a television advertising campaign airing from 20 November over the Christmas period.

Patrón now available in the UK

Bacardi Brown-Forman is now distributing premium tequila brand Patrón in the UK. The range of tequilas and liqueurs will sit alongside Bacardi’s existing range of spirits, including Grey Goose, Bombay Sapphire and Jack Daniel’s.

Courvoisier gift pack

Maxxium has introduced a Courvoisier gift carton for Christmas. Following the success of the Here’s to Now carton last year, the brand has released a 70cl VS bottle wrapped in one of three Jillian Lochner prints.

WKD pricemarked packs available

SHS Drinks has added £4.99 4x275ml pricemarked packs of WKD Blue and Iron Brew in time for Christmas.

Winter variant from Kopparberg

Kopparberg’s winter variant Spiced Apple is back for 2014. Now a permanent addition to the range, the drink can be enjoyed warm or chilled.

Lambrini brings back Bodyguard promotion

Lambrini is again helping women keep safe on a night out through the promotion of the Bodyguard app which utilises GPS and information on local taxi firms. The app is free for iOS and Android.