Christmas 2013 was full of cheer for Susan Connolly, business development manager for her family’s four Spar stores in Wiltshire (two in Tidworth, one in Ludgershall and one in Pewsey). That’s because it was another record year for the business, with sales up 32% year on year between all four stores. “We bought more stock than the previous year, but we still could have sold more,” says Susan.
But it’s not easy pickings for the family firm. “We have lots of competition in close proximity to our stores so we need to work extra hard to optimise the sales opportunity,” she explains.
So Susan concentrates on pinpointing special lines that her customers will want to buy.
“Every year we choose a product to upsell at Christmas. Last year it was a set of water speakers. They retailed at £19.99, which gave us a high margin. We had a set playing so the customers could see them working. We sold 100 sets between our stores; we were amazed.”
Needless to say, she’s been busy looking for this Christmas’ ‘must have’ product and says she thinks she’s found it. “It is called a Boom Box and it retails at £10. We sold seven before they were even delivered, so we’re excited about the product.”
Nothing says Christmas more than the disappointed look on the face of a small child as they realise their parents have forgotten to buy the batteries for their new gift. You can help your customers avoid this by making sure your battery fixture is well-stocked and in clear view in the run up to the 25th.
If any more incentive was needed then it’s worth noting that during the three-month period up to Christmas, 42% of all batteries are sold, which is more than the previous six months combined (source Panasonic/ TNS).
And while the category is still a target for theft, secondary locations may well be worth considering, with Mintel reporting that 52% of battery sales are unplanned or prompted in-store by secondary locations.
Retailers also need to take note that battery sales are changing. While AAs and AAAs are always good sellers, increasingly products - and especially toys - are using the smaller batteries, and often several of them, so households may need several packs.
Manufacturers are stepping up activity at this time of year to attract maximum sales. New from Energiser is a ‘No leaks guaranteed - or your money back’ tagline with disruptive merchandising and POS material.
Varta is relaunching its entire range for the period with a new look and more power, including products such as multi LED aluminium torches, retailing at £5.99 and £7.99.
The four stores each had a small toy range last year, and all sold out. “The sales exceeded our expectations,” says Susan. “This year we are going bigger and better. We have found a fantastic toy range and stocking fillers that we can sell in store at great prices with great margins.”
But it’s not just the surprising range from such small stores that attracts shoppers to Susan’s family’s stores; she says they also visit for the “great atmosphere we create during the festive period”.
“The stores always get in the festive spirit. All are decorated with Christmas decorations and lights. We also use the Christmas POS material sent from our wholesaler Appleby Westward.
“Our Pewsey store creates an annual Santa’s grotto where children receive a present from Santa, while the adults have some mulled wine and a mince pie. It’s all free and so popular that our customers come in and ask when Santa is coming to the store.”
The decorations go up in the first week of December at Ramesh Shingadia’s Londis store in Horsham, West Sussex. There are baubles and a small Christmas tree, and Christmas music is played from the second week of December.
“We aim to inject festive spirit without overpowering the store,” explains Ramesh, “so we opt for a neon Merry Christmas sign in the window, together with the POS material sent from Musgrave. The store needs to be looking good and be well presented to provide a good atmosphere for shoppers.”
Neil McRobbie, who has three Centra stores in Newtownards, Northern Ireland, says Christmas is a lovely time to be working in retail: “Everyone seems to have the Christmas spirit. In our Westwinds store staff will wear silly hats in the week leading up to Christmas but, as much as I love Christmas, you won’t catch me wearing one.”
All in the timing
Peter Patel, who has two Costcutters in Essex and one in Derby, puts out his Christmas lines - tubs of chocolates and biscuits - in November, but this year they went out at the end of September. He explains: “We knew The X-Factor was back on TV and people would be sitting together on a Saturday night watching that and so we thought it would be a good opportunity to sell to them. Hopefully, that way they’ll come back for more for Christmas.
“A couple of customers have said ‘Oh, it’s Christmas already is it?’ and I’ve just made a joke with them about selling them early to make space for Easter eggs.”
Last year was Peter’s first Christmas at his Leigh on Sea and Brentwood stores and sales then gave him the confidence to up his orders for this year.
“We’ve ordered more this time around - mostly chocolates and biscuits,” he says.
Of course, getting your order right for Christmas can be a bit of a gamble, but some retailers have taken measures to make it less so.
For Ramesh that means using market insight from the likes of the IGD to help him estimate what the economic climate will be like at Christmas. “I also look at historical information and consider what worked well for the store in previous years. Each year we do a store audit after Christmas, considering what went well and what didn’t. This gives us continuity for the products we order each year.
“We also make a note of what the economic condition was like at the time and which day of the week Christmas fell on, as that can affect sales.”
Susan’s biggest tip for a successful Christmas is pre-planning. “Work with your wholesaler,” she advises. “Also make sure that you have a Christmas range throughout the store and that you stock the vital list of things people usually forget at Christmas, such as kitchen foil and gravy granules. Appleby Westward has created a top 20 ‘forgotten list’ for us at Christmas so we can stock up on these things. It is a great guide.”
Last year Susan created a Christmas catalogue containing her shops’ entire Christmas range. “Customers could pre-order from the catalogue and we delivered it when they wished. Appleby Westward helped us with this, giving us details of the Christmas lines well in advance.
“Wastage is a bigger issue than normal at Christmas time, but our Christmas order catalogue gave us a good idea of how much fresh food we would need to complete the orders. To this we add what we think we can sell in store. But really we would rather have the wastage than lose a sale. The good margins on our fruit and veg range mean that we can absorb the Christmas wastage.
“On top of this, we have sale or return from some of our suppliers, which always helps. Anything that is due to go out of date on Christmas Day we reduce in price near the end of the day on Christmas Eve, so we at least get some money for it, and some customers get a great deal.”
Ramesh adds: “We want to avoid wastage so we make sure we order enough to keep us well stocked until Boxing Day, with the right mix of products which won’t go out of date. If the products haven’t sold well in the last few days before Christmas then we lower the prices.”
Open or closed?
The question of whether to open on Christmas Day or not still divides convenience retailers.
“Opening up on Christmas Day is a big no for us,” says Susan. “We have seen the demand to open rise, but Christmas Day is the only day of the year that everyone in our company can all have time off and enjoy the festivities.
“We make it clear to our customers that we will be closed and they are fine with this. It doesn’t impact on our business. There are plenty of shops that are open on Christmas Day and our customers come straight back to us on Boxing Day.”
And even though Neil’s three stores are closed on Christmas Day, he’ll be visiting each of them. “It is the only day of the year when all the stores are closed so I still find myself visiting each one to make sure everything is okay - to check the refrigeration and the temperatures.”
But Ramesh has always opened on Christmas Day and it’s been so busy in past years that he’s extending his hours this year from 9am to 2pm to 9am to 6pm.
Don’t forget those pampered pets
When it comes to the four-legged members of a family, you might find that your customers have deep pockets when it comes to Christmas gifting.
According to pet store Pets At Home, 75% of owners buy gifts for their pets, with the average spend at about £38, in some cases more than their significant others, buying everything from petfood treats to advent calendars. And data from Mars Petcare shows pet shoppers spend 50% more than the average shopper.
There are about 71 million pets in UK households, says the Pet Food Manufacturers Association, and 45% of UK households have pets, with the pet population increasing by four million over the past 12 months.
“We’ll be advertising the fact,” he says “because nobody else locally will be open.”
He and his family will work on Christmas Day then celebrate Christmas themselves in the evening. “It’s a tremendous atmosphere and to be fair it’s very lucrative for us. It’s amazing how much people forget to buy. The doors open at 9am and the shop is already full; the demand is huge.
“As well as selling the expected bucket load of batteries, we sell a large volume of flowers, chocolates and off-licence lines to customers travelling to visit family and friends. On Christmas Day all three tills are usually operated by staff, who volunteer to work, and my family man the shop floor.”
Ramesh says it’s not a problem getting staff to work on Christmas Day as many are happy to get out of the house for a couple of hours.
And his store is an extension of the Christmas celebrations: “On Christmas Day and Boxing Day we set up a table with free mince pies, party food and small glasses of wine and sherry for the customers. This goes down really well and creates a great festive ambience and a feel-good factor around the store. It’s amazing to find that we actually have a reputation for doing this; it’s something that we have always done and people actually look forward to it.”
Malik Khan at Costcutter in Iver, Buckinghamshire, also opens on Christmas Day - from 10am to 6pm. “We’ve been opening for 14 years and it’s got busier and busier each year,” he says. “People buy all sorts of things. It could be a last-minute ingredient for something they are cooking, or they have unexpected guests turn up so need some more wine.”
While not every c-store will open on Christmas Day, many make up for it by being there for customers on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day.
Susan says retailers should stay open as long as they can on Christmas Eve. “This is where you can gain incremental sales, when all the mults are closed.”
She says their rotas don’t change over Christmas so everyone knows in advance when they are working. “The staff enjoy working over Christmas,” she says. “They never let us down - sometimes they are pleased to get out of the Christmas mayhem at home.”
Meanwhile, Neil works quite late on Christmas Eve to show his face - to staff and customers. “It’s good for staff to know I’m working alongside them, and even the customers are pleasant to me on Christmas Eve!”
Sarah and Marc Jones of Londis Hoffnant Garage in Brynhoffnant, near Cardigan, open until 8pm on Christmas Eve and Sarah says they get lots of last-minute shoppers in. But in the past, some have been more last-minute than others. “Until two years ago, we lived above the shop so we’d sometimes get people knocking on the door on Christmas Day asking us for things they’d run out of or forgotten - we always tried to help out,” she says.
Neil’s shops re-open on Boxing Day for a full trading day (7am to 9pm). “We’re always busy then with people coming in for boxes of chocolates as a gift for unexpected guests, tin foil or soft drinks. But this will be the first year I’ve had an off licence at Christmas so I’m expecting that department to be busy with people coming in to buy drinks for guests who want something they haven’t got at home.”
All three shops of Peter Patel’s stores are closed on Christmas Day, but open on Christmas Eve until 9pm, and also on Boxing Day.
“There’s a big rush on Christmas Eve at lunchtime with people coming home from work early or having returned from shopping in the town and coming to us because they’ve forgotten something.
“On Boxing Day we sell a lot of batteries, but also a surprising amount of Bisto and Paxo so we always make sure we’ve got plenty of it. I think a lot of people make last-minute plans for meals and get-togethers.”
But Christmas is not all about selling for neighbourhood retailers as many use it as a time to give something back to their shoppers, their communities and their staff.
Malik gets together with fellow retailers to host a Christmas Fair. Last year’s had a bouncy castle, a police car, a Father Christmas and the Salvation Army. Malik gave out wine and mince pies to the adults, while the kids got goodie bags.
“People are already asking me about this year’s event, which we are planning to hold in early December. They like it because it gives them the chance to catch up with friends they haven’t seen around for a while. We run it from 5pm to 9pm and raise money for a local charity.”
Sarah and Marc hold a Christmas raffle every December to raise money for their local hospital in Cardigan.
“In 2012, we raffled the TV that we had won through Londis and managed to raise £550. Then last year one of the raffle prizes was a mountain bike, worth £165, which we received from Cadbury for ordering the full list of their products at the Londis Trade Show at Sandown Park. We raised just under £500 that time. Customers like it because their money is going to a good cause.”
Susan’s stores also hold a Christmas raffle, with all money raised going towards the local community fund, while Ramesh’s store is one of the main sponsors of the local Christmas Fair. “It’s important that we do our bit,” he says, “so we make a financial contribution to the fair and donate prizes, and we get mentioned in all the leaflets and promotional information.”
Last year Sarah and Marc invited about 150 staff, customers and local suppliers to a big Christmas party. “We held the party at a local venue with a buffet and a band - people really enjoyed it,” says Sarah.
And it’s the not the first time they had done it. At the 2012 event, they showed their appreciation to three of their long-standing members of staff by presenting them with gifts for having accomplished 10 years of service with the store. Last year they introduced some in-house awards to show their appreciation to their staff.
All Susan’s stores have their own Christmas party, which is paid for by the company. The managers of each store deci de where they want to take their staff. She says they generally all go for a meal, then maybe for a few ‘sherbets’ down the pub afterwards.
Meanwhile, Ramesh gives a bottle of wine to the staff who have worked over the Christmas holidays and organises a Christmas party for all staff in January - when the rush is over.
Kerry and Paxo enter frozen aisle
Kerry Foods has branched out into frozen foods and accompaniments in a tie-up with the Paxo brand. Paxo Stuffing Balls are the first launch into frozen foods for the brand. The 300g bags contain 12 sage and onion stuffing balls with a rrp at £1.50.
Festive fragrance from Airwick
Airwick has given its room fragrances the aroma of Christmas. They include mulled Wine & Crackling Fire and Berries & Spice, and National Parks Lake District: Midnight Berries & Shimmering Mist and National Parks Cairngorms: Spiced Apple & Snowy Mountains.
Cathedral city Christmas packs
Cathedral City is celebrating Christmas with seasonal designs across its range of block Cheddar and Cathedral City Selections.
Winter spice from Febreze
Febreze has launched limited-edition packs for Christmas across its air fresheners and Ambi Pur plug-ins. Apple & Spice, Winter Garden and Vanilla Latte have been added to the Winter Collection, all available in special themed packs.
Gifts for the family from Unilever
Unilever has introduced a range of toiletry gifting sets from brand names such as Lynx, Dove Men +Care, Dove and Impulse.
Spar gets festive
Spar’s Christmas range this year includes new festive packaging on mince pies and a luxury variant to add to the Deep Filled Mince Pies. To add some sparkle to the season there’s also a limited-edition Perlezza Magnum 150cl, rrp £20, on promotion at £13.33.