While the grocery multiples have stolen Christmas for a lot of independents, there are still many out there who are doing well from the biggest of all the seasonal events.
60% of convenience store retailers start their in-store festive displays in October and November while 44% of retailers see a sales uplift in wine, spirits and beers over Christmas.
One such retailer is Jeet Bansi, who has a Londis store in Banbury, Oxfordshire. To say Jeet is bucking the trend is an understatement as his sales were up 18% last Christmas, and he’s predicting an increase of at least 25% this time around.
He says his secret is simple - planning and taking advantage of the Londis pre-sell opportunity. And take advantage he did, with a pre-order worth £19,000 plus VAT, 10 times bigger than last year’s.
“We see the pre-order as an investment as we don’t have to pay for it until January, and using pre-sell means you are guaranteed to get what you want,” explains Jeet.
Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that most of that £19,000 spend went on tubs of twistwraps - Quality Street, Celebrations, Heroes and Roses. These are the very lines that you see piled high in the doors of Asda, Tesco et al, but Jeet is selling them at £5 - on a par with the grocery multiples.
Only 5% of c-store shoppers think c-stores do events well, so help drive sales with exciting theatre
Site your Christmas products such as mince pies, puddings, and confectionery together for maximum impact
Ensure availability of your core range, such as bread and milk, at key times of the day. Customers will run out of these essentials over the busy festive period
Inform your customers of all the payment options you offer. More than 40% of shoppers say they would shop more at their local store if they could pay by card.
These tubs went out on display in the store as soon as they were delivered at the end of August. Jeet says he’d already seen them in the grocery mults by then and wanted to ensure his customers knew he had them. Jeet received hundreds of tubs, and has worked out that he needs to sell 40 a week, which he says is only five or six a day.
“The grocery mults pile them up, but soon sell out. Last year we didn’t get them on pre-order and people came in asking for them when the mults had sold out.
“For us the display is a good bit of marketing - shoppers will see them and know we stock them. There are also the people who will buy them early, eat them and then need to buy some more.”
The pre-sell order also included boxes of Walkers crisps, KP caddies of nuts and snacks, cakes, stollen, mince pies, biscuits, shortbread and brandy snaps.
He says there will be much more variety in his store this year. “We’ve deliberately gone for lines that are more unusual - Christmassy items that shoppers can give as last- minute gifts.
“Christmas is not so much about deals - it’s more about choice. I’m certain 90% of my customers don’t shop on price at Christmas.”
In Wolverhampton, Premier retailer Sarbjit Daley is looking forward to seeing what deals Premier has for him this Christmas. “We carry a big Christmas range because the deals are usually very good,” he says.
And despite the huge hike in stamp prices earlier in the year, Sarbjit says Christmas cards are still a big seller.
Turkeys and Christmas trees are winners for Dean Holborn at his two stores in Surrey.
The turkey business began 15 years ago and was inspired by his uncle, who had a local farm. What started as an advert in the window progressed to selling them in store.
Sadly, Dean’s uncle passed away so he had to find another supplier - a farm in West Sussex. Today he sells 70 or 80 each Christmas at £50-£60 a go.
His Christmas tree trade is also brisk - Dean sells upwards of 150 from his two stores. “Having trees outside adds theatre,” says Dean. “Families can come along and choose their tree. They can take it away themselves or we deliver.”
Two Holborn’s stores, Surrey
“We do well on cards generally, but at Christmas we have to get an extra stand in. We’ve found that a lot of people are sending cards earlier so they can use second-class stamps. We remind them of the last posting dates and advise whether they’ll need a first- or second-class stamp. Sometimes you have to say ‘You’re wasting your time and money sending that second class - it’ll never make it in time’. People moan about the prices of stamps, but they still send the cards.”
Christmas Day trading
When Donna and Bruce Morgan took over Best-One at Brownlies of Biggar, South Lanarkshire, seven years ago, Donna says it was her husband who had the “bright idea” of opening on Christmas Day.
“We said we’d open for four hours as a trial and we had a figure in mind for takings to see whether it was worthwhile or not. We’ve been open on Christmas Day ever since,” she says.
Donna and Bruce still man the shop themselves on Christmas Day. “It gets me out of cooking the dinner,” laughs Donna. “I really don’t mind being in the shop. We have nibbles and make it a bit of a celebration, then I go round to my mother-in-law’s for dinner.
“We get all sorts of people in. Last year someone came in panicking because they needed a turkey - we couldn’t help them with that. But typically it’s items such as cranberry sauce that they want. A lot of people get engaged on Christmas Day so we sell a fair amount of Champagne as people rush in to buy a bottle to celebrate.”
Donna makes sure the fact that they are open on Christmas day is advertised in the shop window from the beginning of December.
In Wolverhampton, Sarbjit opens (and works himself) from 8am until 9 or even 10pm on Christmas Day. He says: “We’ve been doing it for as long as we’ve been here, which is five years. The people before us did it so we just carried on.
“It all depends on your location. We’re on the main drag here so we get a lot of passing trade. People who are visiting friends and relatives drop in to pick up last-minute items.
“The most popular lines are things like stuffing and pickles. We sell a lot of batteries, but not as many as we used to as people have wised up and stock up beforehand. Come 6pm we get people coming in for beer.”
It’s Christmas Day once a month throughout the year at Chris Ward’s EuroSpar in Milford Haven, Pembrokeshire. And that’s because he serves up a full Christmas dinner on the first Friday of every month.
The total cigar category is currently worth £254m a year, and convenience stores boast a 44% volume share of that. That’s more than 181 million cigars, and much of these sales are made in the run up to the all-important Christmas period when adult smokers look to treat themselves and others.
While miniature cigars continue to lead the sales charge, accounting for 66% of all volume sales, the festive period prompts a rise in sales of medium to large cigars as people purchase them as gifts for friend, family and adult smoking acquaintances.
For just £3.99, customers get turkey, stuffing, three types of veg (whatever’s in season), mashed or new potatoes and sometimes roast potatoes, as well as gravy. It is all packed in a polystyrene tray and comes complete with a knife and fork. Some customers come in with their own plates, but most stick with the polystyrene.
Chris explains: “A while back Greggs opened nearby and took a huge chunk of our pasty business. We needed to offer something different so went into prepared meals. We started doing a Sunday lunch and it was so popular that we started offering a Christmas lunch once a month. We put a board up to advertise it, stating how many days there are until Christmas.
“The dinner is really popular - we probably sell 40 each time. We have a lot of older customers and it can be the only hot meal they get all week. The workmen love it, too, as it’s what they call ‘proper nosh’. But we get office workers buying as well.”
In December, the Christmas lunch is available every Friday, and in the 10 days leading up to December 25 it is on the menu every day.
Winter ice cream
The bleak midwinter temperatures may lead you to give ice cream the cold shoulder. But with the festive season comes an increase in social get-togethers, and this is exactly the type of occasion that Unilever is targeting with its new Magnum After Dinner (rrp £3.49), part of the brand’s new winter range.
“Magnum After Dinner is the first product from Magnum specifically designed for sharing occasions,” says brand manager Caterina Di Felice.
The milk and white chocolate-coated ‘bites’ of vanilla ice cream aim to provide an alternative to chocolate as a treat to be shared on evenings and weekends. “The trend for snacking and sharing has come from the confectionery category, which has increased its presence at the snacking occasion through formats such as sharing bags and mini snacking formats of treats,” says brand building director Noel Clarke. “We believe this snacking trend and the relevant formats can be replicated within ice cream to ensure it is the snack or sweet treat of choice.”
Chris says it’s not particularly labour intensive: “We have a proper lunch menu anyway. For the Christmas lunches, the preparation just slots into the working day. Staff do the preparation during quieter times. It’s the peeling of the veg that’s most labour intensive.
“We advertise it on Facebook and Twitter and get comments from people who are further afield who wished they lived nearer so they could get the lunches. It just proves that there’s a market out there for quality food that’s value for money.”
Back in Banbury, Jeet says it’s imperative to make sure shoppers know when you’ll be open at Christmas, especially if it includes Christmas Day.
“We have posters at the door, by the ATM and at the till. The only other advertising we do is word of mouth. The poster at the till was a really good talking point - people took note and thought ‘I’ll remember that’. By our second year of trading, the Christmas Day business had really snowballed - a lot more people came in, and even some people who had moved away from the area came back because they’d remembered we’d be open. And, amazingly, some people came in just because they’d seen shoppers come out.”
As Jeet’s is a family-run business - with his wife Pam and brother Raj - there are never any staffing issues on Christmas Day. They work, and defer their own Christmas celebrations until the evening.
They like to really get into the Christmas spirit so last year they put out wine, sherry, mince pies and biscuits as a gesture. They played festive music and wore party hats. “We created a really nice atmosphere in store and it felt really Christmassy. I expect we will see the results of that this year.
“One of the best decisions we ever made was opening on Christmas Day. We trade from 10am-2pm (or sometimes 3pm or nearer 4pm!) and are extremely busy, taking a full day’s takings in just those few hours,” he says.
“On Christmas Eve we’re open until 10pm. Last year we did not actually stop serving until 11pm - and still someone tried to come in as I was locking up!”
Don’t forget the batteries
” Winter is the key selling time for batteries - you’ve got the darker nights, so more torches are in use. And most battery-operated children’s toys are ‘batteries not included’, so the two weeks leading up to Christmas are the peak selling time. One challenge that c-stores have is that they merchandise batteries behind the counter. This means consumers get confused over which batteries to buy. Having a countertop unit enables them to see what to choose. “
Anthony Sewell, Varta sales and marketing director
It’s a similar story at the Best-One at Brownlies of Biggar, where actually shutting up shop is the problem. As well as Christmas Day, the store is open on New Year’s Day and trades well then, too. Donna says the official opening times are 12am to 4pm, but last year they stayed open until 6pm because they couldn’t close the doors for people trying to get in.
Something for everyone
Jeet says the reason his store is so busy is that his customers are guaranteed he’ll have what they want. “I had people ask me if we were going to have bread on Christmas Day so I made sure we had plenty of everything. Shoppers come in on Christmas Day for Christmas cards, wrapping paper, gravy, goose fat - all the things you’d think people would have at home. Someone was having a ‘dessert crisis’ so needed digestive biscuits to make a cheesecake.”
He adds: “They come to us as they know they can rely on us to have everything they need to put a meal together. People use us as their pantry. For example, if we don’t have tinned peas, we have frozen ones.”
While tinned sharing confectionery dominates early seasonal sales, independents can also use the impulsive nature of Christmas to their advantage with a strong range of novelty gifts.
“Novelties is one of the most profitable areas within confectionery and it’s growing,” says Nestlé trade communications manager Graham Walker. Giant tubes featuring big brands such as Cadbury’s Freddo the frog and Nestlé Smarties are a promising option, and Walker claims that 90% of giant tubes purchases are incremental.
Ferrero’s Mini Cube (rrp £2.99) makes an attractive gift or stocking filler, as does Hancocks’ sweet-filled Wooden Reindeer Sleigh (rrp £4.99).
Christmas is a time for sharing with friends and family, offering further potential. “The trend towards sharing is a huge opportunity,” points out Mondelez International trade communications manager Susan Nash.
Offering a range of favourite brands that will sell in January, such as twist-wrap cartons of Cadbury Heroes, Quality Street and Celebrations, avoids the risk of leftover stock.
In Donna’s store, Christmas hampers are a big seller. They are so popular that she makes a few hundred every year.
“Quite often customers accompany me around the store and we pick out things together. We build the cost of making them into the basket price. Typically, we include biscuits, cheese, salmon and wine, but it depends on who it’s for. Older people, for example, like their preserves,” she says.
“Last Christmas Day we had someone come in who’d forgotten a present for someone. They asked for suggestions for a last-minute present and I made them a hamper - it took 20 minutes, but really helped them out.
“If you’re offering something like this, you really need to let people know. We make hampers and baskets up and put them out on display and we tell people about them, too.
“We always make sure we are ready for Christmas by the last Friday of November as that’s when the town has its late-night shopping event. We have to be ready for then so people know what we have got.”
Sarbjit likes to get into the Christmas spirit by wearing a hat on Christmas Day, but says you have to be mindful about decorations. “We put up decorations in the window but have to be careful with the glitter ones elsewhere in the store as they move around and set the sensors off at night, but we do as much as we can.”
And doing as much as they can to make Christmas easier for their customers is certainly working well for these retailers.
New name for Café Crème miniatures
Scandinavian Tobacco Group UK (STG UK) is re-naming Café Crème Express Blue miniature cigars as Café Crème Finos Blue. The move aligns the brand’s name with markets around the world, lending it international recognition. Café Crème Finos Blue will be available in a tin of 10 with an rrp of £4.09.
Aunt Bessie’s expands
Aunt Bessie’s has added four new products to its frozen range: large breaded mushrooms roasting carrots button sprouts and special vegetable mash. The roasting carrots have been enhanced with a glaze of honey and ginger, while the button sprouts feature a glaze of thyme, sage and nutmeg. The carrots and sprouts are available in 500g packs and the sprouts come in a 350g serving, all with an rrp of £1.79. The vegetable mash has an rrp of £1.99 for a 450g bag.
Christmas treats for furry friends
Let’s not forget those other key members of the family this yuletide - the four legged variety. Mars Petcare has a range of Christmas gifts for pets, including a Pedigree Advent Calendar, a Whiskas Christmas Stocking and limited editions in both Pedigree and Dreamies brands. Rrps range from £3.50 to £3.99.