Spirits sales at Christmas are no small fry. In 2005 they were worth a whopping £433m more than crisps and snacks, turkey, tea bags and satsumas and clementines combined - and the sector is 80% bigger than boxed chocolates by value (AC Nielsen Scantrack/Diageo).
About 10.5 million households buy spirits at Christmas, with the £36.50 average spend per buyer increasing to £39 if they switch to premium brands. Last year the last week of Christmas was worth £153m in retail sales value. So if you had disappointing Christmas spirits sales, it's time for a rethink. After all, there's a lot to miss out on.
Director of research consultancy HIM, Peter Segal, believes retailers are losing spirit and liqueur sales all year round, not only at Christmas. "We can certainly give people the opportunity to interact with the spirits category far better than we do," he says. The main difficulty is that fear of crime means many c-stores keep this category behind the till and away from the public. This, says Segal, reduces its impact and results in lost sales.
"You have to remind shoppers that spirits are a key thing to have in the Christmas cabinet, and shoppers need stimulation to buy‚" he says.
Diageo is currently working on a number of initiatives to combat crime and encourage retailers to get spirits on display in stores. Ideas include everything from empty packaging to noise activation on displays, and trials are currently under way with Musgrave Budgens Londis stores.
"All the tests say that you're likely to see a growth of about 20%, so doing it at Christmas means you'll see growth on a bigger chunk of volume," says Diageo channel director routes to market Paul Downing. "If you're in a position to do it safely at Christmas then do so."
The Federation of Wholesale Distributors Blueprint Putting Leaders on Display initiative has had considerable success with its trials to encourage retailers to take 70cl bottles from the "coffin behind the counter" onto the shopfloor - still in view of the till and with a security cap attached. One of the most recent trials involved retailer Simon Jones of Jones Day and Night in Melksham, Wiltshire, who saw a 29% rise in spirit sales. His total spirits inventory was also re-organised and brought into line with the FWD Blueprint principles.
Segal says manufacturers and retailers should be working together to find security solutions, but whichever device is chosen shouldn't put up any barriers to selling. For retailers who feel they can bring spirits out from behind the till, he suggests having a special stand of Christmas favourites with tonics, cokes and limes next to it. He adds: "Winter Pimm's, for example, could be ranged near apple juice and apples - whatever is associated with the brand. In this way you bring spirits into the psyche of the consumer."
First Drinks business unit director wholesale and convenience John Moore agrees: "Grouping certain products can help customers make the connection. This might be as simple as merchandising Warninks advocaat next to lemonade to suggest a Snowball."
For retailers who think none of the security measures will work, Segal recommends using either dummy bottles as a reminder to buy, or displaying large pos behind the till - anything to capture shoppers' attention: "You can also get staff to ask customers whether they've got their Baileys for Christmas. You just have to remind customers that spirits are an important part of the festive experience."
Diageo's Downing says that whichever route retailers take, visibility is the key: "Keep it simple. Don't compete head-on with the multiples over price; a fair price is what people are looking for - and a clear price and a visible product."
Beverage Brands marketing director Karen Salters says retailers should look to what has worked before. "Just looking at what happened last Christmas gives you a pretty good insight into which brands will fly off the shelves and which ones will be languishing in the stock room long after the festive season is over."
And whatever you do, don't forget the period after Christmas. Diageo trading director, grocery, Andy Adams, says: "Retailers forget this time at their peril; it's when people often take the chance to restock. Having an empty shop on Christmas Eve is not the best retail practice."
Adams adds that cash and carries could do more to help retailers at Christmas. "It's a huge operation for convenience store owners to top up between Christmas and New Year and retailers want cash and carries to realise that."
And as supermarkets are notorious for out of stocks around Christmas, Downing says it's the perfect time for small retailers to clean up.

Fool-proof ways to add sales

l Families often start to think about Christmas as early as September, so make sure you don't leave it too late.
l Ensure premium brands are kept in stock at all times to take advantage of the trade up at Christmas.
l Don't give too much space to everyday brands; ensure you've got a complete offering.
l Use pos material and in-house theatre to draw attention to Christmas promotions.
l Think about the formats on offer; use your knowledge of your customers to serve their needs.
l Rethink your store layout. Are you giving spirits enough space and prominence?
l Know your stock and be ready to suggest an alternative if you do run out of something.
l Some 15% of Christmas gifts are bought in the last 10 days before Christmas and spirits make great presents.
l Minimise 'me too' products to free up space for new and gift lines.
l If you've got a chiller, use it for RTDs. While the multiples still drag their feet on chilled offerings, make sure you take advantage of the trend.
l Don't just plan up to Christmas Eve - remember the days between Christmas and New Year's Day.
l If you do run a promotion keep it simple and watch out for out of stocks.
l Drive sales by cross-merchandising.
l Take note of the messages that manufacturers are putting in their ads - if they are promoting cocktails think about stocking the ingredients together, and if the message is 'serve warm' add some pos to that effect.

Attention seekers

• WKD will be supporting its products in the Christmas run-up with a £4m marketing spend including TV and poster advertising.
• Winter Pimm's is being backed with a £2.4m marketing campaign that will include a Pimm's Winter igloo which will be touring the country.
• Gordon's gin will be backed by a £2.5m marketing campaign emphasising the juniper content of the drink and has brought out a new gift pack for c-stores and specialists.
• Plymouth Gin is running promotional price activity this Christmas with £4 off a litre and £2.50 off 70cl, and will be offering sampling within the convenience sector.
• Bell's whisky will be available in a gift pack containing a free diary.
• Baileys is to be supported by a £5m marketing campaign including TV and radio and is rolling out its mint and caramel variants.
• Glenfiddich is to benefit
from a £1.5m advertising campaign this Christmas and, along with Grant's Family Reserve and Three Barrels, will be available in Christmas gift packs.