No one would want to take pleasure in another retailer's misfortune, but the disappearance over the past year of some of the established specialist off-licence chains from the nation's high streets gives c-stores an unexpected chance to grab a bigger share of the resurgent Christmas wines market.

While supermarkets have already reacted with bulk deals on wine, the fact remains that the Christmas staples of impulse and last-minute purchases for gifts and celebrations play right into the hands of the local shop.

And while last year's festive season fell in the early days of economic uncertainty, the feeling in the wine trade is that this year will see a slight easing of the purse strings as consumers reward themselves with a few small treats to end a tough year.

"In these straitened times, while consumers will want to celebrate and spend more than they do in the rest of the year, they will continue to be cautious, too," says James Craig-Wood, communications manager at United Wineries.

The retailers' task, therefore, is to offer an affordable range which encourages customers to spend a little more than they expected. The category certainly replays a little investment: according to market analyst HIM, the average shopper in a convenience store spends £4.79, whereas adding wine increases spend to £11.53.

That means that getting shoppers to add a bottle of wine to their basket increases spend by 140% so it's worth spending time to consider both the wine offer and its prominence in the store.

Sparkling success

Cautious celebration calls for affordable bubbles, and it's sparkling wine up 9% in value to £300m in the year to June, according to Nielsen, and growing at 3% in impulse which is most likely to fill that customer need.

'The popularity of sparkling wine will continue to drive strong sales over Christmas," says Codorníu brand manager Jo Sorenson. "While consumers are reluctant to splash out on expensive sparkling wine, they are still seeking something more special and celebratory than a still wine at Christmas. People are starting to realise that they can still enjoy life's little luxuries without breaking the bank, and a quality, good value sparkling wine fits the bill," she believes.

All this means that it's likely to be Champagne that's left out in the cold. Indeed, Nielsen reports Champagne sales have dropped by almost 14% in the past year. Pernod Ricard says that its Perrier-Jouët and GH Mumm Champagne were the only two premium Champagne brands to show value growth last Christmas.

"Sparkling wines, on the other hand, have been relatively buoyant, particularly branded cava and prosecco," says United's Craig-Wood. "Increasingly, consumers are moving away from Champagne, but are still celebrating with brands such as Marqués de Monistrol, which has seen double-digit growth in the past three years."

Nielsen figures reveal that non-Champagne sparkling wines now account for 88% by volume of bubbly sales. Clare Griffiths, VP European consumer marketing for Constellation Europe, says that's no surprise. "Some New World sparkling wines, such as Hardys Nottage Hill Sparkling Chardonnay, can easily rival Champagne in terms of style and quality, and would be the perfect option for consumers looking to make an impulse purchase for a festive celebration or party."

Sorenson adds that Codorníu sparkling wine saw 6% growth in value at Christmas last year, and recommends sticking to the market leaders. "Consumers need to see trusted names on the shelves which will give them the opportunity to trade up or down as they please," she says.

It's a gift

Pernod Ricard UK customer development director Dan Reuby picks up on the huge opportunity to market sparkling alcoholic drinks as a last-minute gift purchase. "People shopping for gifts have a greater propensity to be more unadventurous than if they were buying for themselves, so it is advisable to stock well-recognised branded gift packs that can help to make the purchasing decision less confusing," he says. "One in 10 bottles of all sparkling wine and Champagne are purchased as a gift, which presents retailers with strong opportunities."

Foster's EMEA is certainly taking the sparkly stuff seriously, with a special promotion to drive sales in the convenience channel. Foster's Neil Barker reveals: "We are seeing good growth in this category, in particular high growth at the higher price brackets."

He recommends Beringer Sparkling Zinfandel Rosé NV as "great to enjoy over a meal with friends and family".

It's worth keeping an eye on rosé, the Liberal Democrat of the wine category (solid and dependable, but never expected to challenge the big two) which has crept up in popularity and is in with a chance of taking power this Christmas.

"Don't overlook rosé since it continues to drive both still and sparkling growth and performed particularly strongly last season," says Pernod Ricard's Reuby. 'Still rosé grew by 23% and was worth £94.5m, while sparkling rosé grew by 6% and was worth £16m."

"Consumers are enjoying sparkling rosé all year round and it's one of the most versatile styles there is," adds Sorenson. "There is something fun and festive about it, so stock up on trusted best-sellers." She recommends Codorníu Pinot Noir Rosé Brut (rrp £10.99).

Still growth

On the still side, the opportunity is all about up-sell. "Consumers consistently trade up in wine at Christmas, with 2008 being no exception; up 15p in average price and 3.6% in value," says Reuby. "Above-£5 wines grew by 16% last Christmas and 23% of all wine volume sold last Christmas was above £5, with the biggest growth coming from £6-£7 at 20%."

Montana and Campo Viejo both grew in value last season (17% and 2% respectively), he adds, and the Jacob's Creek Three Vines range is currently performing particularly strongly at 44% value growth.

"Key for convenience retailers is encouraging customers to trade up over the party season a period where consumers are more likely to pay a little bit more for something special," says Kevin Chinn, sector controller wholesale, Percy Fox & Co. He recommends Blossom Hill's Limited Edition White Zinfandel, produced specifically for the Christmas season with a "winter wonderland" label design.

United Wineries reports that still wines from South Africa, Italy, Chile, Spain and New Zealand are selling well at the expense of French, Australian and American. "We have seen excellent growth for Spanish brand Berberana as we have launched the first-ever wine brand loyalty scheme called One Cork One Point, which offers added value to consumers when they need it most," reveals Craig-Wood.

Constellation Europe's Griffiths says wine value sales are up 3% in the convenience sector overall, but it is category stars such as the company's own Echo Falls and Kumala that are performing ahead of the market at 4% and 33% respectively. "The top 10 wine brands make up 37.5% of all convenience wine sales, so it really pays to stock the best-sellers such as Hardys, Echo Falls, Stowells and Kumala," she says.

Hardys will be on TV throughout the 12-week period leading up to Christmas, through the brand's sponsorship of Channel 4's hit TV show Come Dine With Me. More than half of all UK adults (56%) will see the Hardys idents 34 times, Griffith says.

She has a special tip for retailers: Think Chilean. "Look to dedicate a proportion of your wine offering to Chilean wine it is in strong growth, with value sales up 22% to £414m," she advises. "Chilean wine sales are up 2% in convenience and very strong sales are expected for Constellation's newly launched Chilean wine brand, Gran Tierra."

Constellation also offers new Chilean varietals from Echo Falls - Echo Falls Sauvignon Blanc and Echo Falls Shiraz which have been developed to appeal to 'new to wine' consumers.