As scary as it may seem, Christmas is right around the corner. In the Fortune household, enticing boxes of festive food goodies will miraculously start to appear in our cupboards from now until the week before Christmas, waiting to be unwrapped on the big day itself and beyond - and woe betide anyone touching them beforehand.

We’re not alone in our family tradition. Spreading the cost of Christmas seems to be a growing trend among consumers, suppliers report. Despite the recession, consumers aren’t willing to cut back on Christmas spending, preferring to stagger their spending instead and creating an opportunity for retailers to cash in over a much longer period.

63%

That’s the percentage of retailers who started stocking for Christmas in September (Convenience Store poll 2012)

Ivan Cross, snacks market strategy and planning director at United Biscuits’ KP Snacks, predicts that purse-tightening consumers won’t scrimp on snacks when it comes to the festive season. “It’s no secret that we are still in the middle of a difficult economic climate, but the good news for snacking is that people are willing to splash out on affordable luxuries,” he says. “In fact, we know that consumers do more snacking and look for extra ‘special’ or ‘treat’ products in the lead up to and throughout the festive period.”

Premier Foods head of category Kirsten Reid agrees that shoppers are spreading the cost over a longer period of time in order to manage their budget better. “Frequency of shopping trips has increased while the volume purchased on each trip has reduced,” she says. “Shoppers are planning more, using price-comparison websites and shopping apps in order to save money, so if retailers have products at the right price, they stand to capitalise.”

The Fabulous Bakin’ Boys chief executive Gary Frank believes that consumers’ careful spending means retailers need to plan more carefully than ever. “Price is always an important element of any product - especially so this year, with the economic climate likely to affect consumer spending,” he says. “Food sales will provide the majority of spend over the Christmas season, so it is important for retailers to choose their festive product lines carefully to gain maximum sales.

Good to go at Christmas

Cuisine de France’s chefs have been busy baking to create its Christmas food-to-go range for 2012. The company has increased the range to 11 SKUs, introducing mincemeat, cranberry and almond slices orange and cranberry flowerpot muffins and chocolate and orange flowerpot muffins. It hopes these new lines will offer an alternative to the traditional mince pies, following company research that discovered consumers felt that the market was saturated with them.

Cuisine de France’s Festive Slice is also making a return. The puff pastry filled with turkey, pork sausage and a bacon and cranberry sauce was the brand’s top-selling line last year, it says. The Christmas range is available to retailers now.

Country Choice is also getting festive with its food-to-go offering. For 2012 it has added a Star Mince Pie, Christmas Cookie and a Christmas Cake Slice - rich fruit cake topped with marzipan, white icing and an edible holly decoration. All three new additions are thaw and sell products, and can be promoted via a free range of pos material including shelf-edge labels, Christmas shelf-talkers and Christmas stickers.

Christmas-themed countertop and floor standing display units are also available to help retailers create a seasonal buzz.

Adding a festive flavour to its sandwich range, Ginsters has created two seasonal sandwiches. The Christmas Cracker, which includes turkey, Cumberland sausage, sage & onion stuffing and red onion cranberry stuffing, and the cranberry, Wensleydale and bacon variant will both be available from November. The brand is also set to introduce a turkey, bacon and cranberry pasty.

“The market has seen a definite trend towards home snacking and higher spending on affordable treats during these tough economic times. Offering value for money will be key for independent retailers during 2012.”

To help retailers achieve this, The Fabulous Bakin’ Boys has introduced discount prices for the Merry Choccy Orange Mini Muffins and Festive Choccy Fudge Mini Cupcakes, which will be available at an introductory price of £1 per pack of 12 (rrp £1.50).

Buy early, buy often

If shoppers hadn’t planned to start early, the big supermarkets are certainly pushing them in that direction. As soon as the summer ended, the multiples packed away all the unsold barbecues and suntan lotions and replaced them with Christmas displays.

If independents want to keep up, they need to get in early as well. “The opportunity for retailers at Christmas starts as early as October,” says Frank. “Many independent store owners may want to wait until the Halloween season is over to fully benefit from the spooky season. However, it is worth considering that larger stores are already heavily promoting their festive lines, so in order to compete, convenience stores must make the most of consumers looking for that early bargain.”

Tyrrell’s senior marketing manager Cath White adds that even if retailers don’t have a display, they should have a plan in mind. “Starting early allows the retailer to build familiarity with key ‘halo’ Christmas products. It also helps the retailer to fine tune product offerings and promotions in time for the huge rush in December. Even if the retailer doesn’t have a Christmas fixture in October, they should have a plan of how products will be merchandised and how the store needs to be laid out to accommodate extra pos and specific Christmas products.”

Top 10 Christmas small cakes in 2011

Mr. Kipling Mince Pies six-pack

Mr. Kipling Frosty Fancies eight-pack

Mr. Kipling Snap Pack Christmas Cake Slices

Cadbury Mini Yule Logs six-pack

Cadbury Snow Stars six-pack

Cadbury Snow Flake six-pack

McVitie’s Galaxy Mistletoe Kisses Cakebar

Mr. Kipling Festive Whirls

Mr. Kipling Festive Bakewells six-pack

Mr. Kipling Snap Pack Rum & Raisin Slice

(Source IRI Value Sales week ending December 25, 2011)

Mark Sugden, director market strategy & planning at United Biscuits UK, says that consumers who buy early are likely to buy again, so retailers should be attracting customers as soon as they can. “We know that shoppers respond well to ‘early bird-style’ promotions, and we expect the deals traditionally used to launch Christmas ranges in-store to prove attractive again this year,” he says.

“One-in-three shoppers who buy early make a repeat purchase topping up nearer to Christmas Day. This clearly demonstrates the sales and profit opportunity for retailers and the importance of remaining stocked up at all times.”

Sugden and United Biscuits’ Cross agree that cakes and biscuits usually start selling earlier than savoury snacks, so retailers stuck for space may want to focus on these for the first few weeks of the Christmas build-up.

“Unlike sweet snacking, savoury snacking is not seen as a gifting item and is mainly functional,” says Sugden. “This means that consumers tend to purchase snacks just before events and get-togethers where snacks are shared among friends and family. We have always seen savoury snacks peak slightly later than biscuits and cakes and we expect a similar pattern for Christmas 2012.”

Sugden believes demand for Christmas-related treats will be even earlier than usual due to people looking to get into the festive spirit to beat the winter blues. “Indulgent cake bars such as Galaxy Mistletoe Kisses are also purchased on the lead up to Christmas by consumers wanting to include something different in their lunch box, or as a festive snack,” he says.

What to stock

With space in stores at a premium, retailers need to be choosy about which products they decide to stock, so what’s new on the market for this year?

On the biscuit and cake side of things, United Biscuits UK has unveiled several new products including McVitie’s Classic Chocolate Selection in a 400g tin (rrp £11) a new-look McVitie’s Classic Collection in a 500g carton (rrp £6.60) and Jacob’s Festive Faces - a seasonal twist on the brand’s ‘Happy Faces’ - which comes in a 275g pack (rrp £1.65).

retailer’s view

Saqib Ghafoor

“I’ve been stocking festive tins since September and customers are already buying them. I know it seems very early, but the multiples have already started so it’s important we keep up, especially before they really start getting aggressive in December.

“It’s also good to get the stock out early as last year there was a shortage of Christmas merchandise in the fortnight before and customers have learned from their experiences. Plus, there’s little point in keeping stock in the warehouse if you can get it on to the shopfloor and make some extra sales.”

Saqib Ghafoor, Nisa Ashington and Gateshead

On the snack side of the business, United Biscuits has focused on helping retailers stock more this Christmas with outers that are easier to stack. “Our entire Christmas snacking range has been designed so that it’s easier for retailers to display and easy for shoppers to consume,” says Cross. “Many products feature festive designs and all sharing products are provided in our new freestanding stackable retail packaging.”

These outers will be available from mid-October and will feature share-size packs of McCoy’s, Hula Hoops and Twiglets.

Premier Foods is also getting into the festive spirit with its seasonal cake offering. This year it introduces Mr Kipling Mince and Brandy Pies and Mr Kipling Black Forest Whirls, both in a six-pack format.

The Cadbury cake range will be extended with new lines: Mint Mini Rolls Festive Caramel Cakes and Chocolate Orange Yule Log.

Burton’s Biscuit Company has extended its Cadbury Biscuits range for Christmas. As well as a revamp of its existing collection, including the 380g Silver Assortment Tin (rrp £10.99) and Cadbury Mini Animals 175g Novelty Tube (rrp £1.79), the brand has added a 500g Mini Fingers Barrel Tin (rrp £10.99) and the 330g Fabulous Fingers Tin (rrp £6.99).

Ones to watch

Snow business

Kids’ savoury favourite Pom-Bear has introduced a variant especially for Christmas. Pigs in Blankets will be available in 6x19g multipacks from this month. The snack is meat-free.

rrp: £1.29

tel: 01536 402 700

Red alert

Ocean Spray has splashed out on a TV campaign for its Craisins dried cranberries range. The six-week run will air in October and will be supported by a ‘Try Me Free’ promotion on Cranberry Classic juice cartons.

tel: 08457 227 222

Seasonal share

Kettle Chips is bringing back its winter limited-edition flavours in time for all those Christmas gatherings and socialising. Sea salt, rosemary & garlic and blue stilton & port come in 150g sharing bags.

tel: 0800 616 996

Festive feel

Pringles gets a festive feel this Christmas with two new seasonal variants - Christmas turkey and sausage & crispy bacon. Its core range will also feature limited-edition festive artwork.

tel: 0800 597 3388

Choc a block

Bahlsen is relaunching its Choco Leibniz range with a new look and a £1m marketing campaign. The range includes dark chocolate, milk chocolate, orange milk chocolate and double choc variants.

tel: 01753 889822