According to market analysts Mintel, grocery shopping at Christmas can be split into three distinct parts. From December 1, shoppers will be after treats such as biscuits, mince pies and chocolates. A couple of weeks before Christmas and it's party season, a good time for wine, spirits and beer, as well as snacks and party food. Finally, it's the big day itself to buy for and that means all the trimmings, vegetables, turkey and pudding.
What this shows is that retailers need to stock a complete Christmas offering right from the first day of December. Fail to do this and you'll certainly miss out.
One of the major trends for the past few years has been a move to premium goods, and United Biscuits UK (UBUK) is hoping to tap into this with some of its 15 new launches. New lines for 2006 include a premium McVitie's Moments tin, Temptations and four new KP Nuts luxury mixes. There's also a revamped McVitie's Victoria tin and a Carr's savoury selection tin.
Cadbury biscuit manufacturer Burton's Foods has also been busy launching new products in time for the Christmas rush. The Cadbury Signature tin is a 400g tin containing nine biscuit varieties covered in milk, dark and white chocolate. A Signature Thins 300g carton has also been launched and contains a selection of individually foil-wrapped thin milk, dark and white chocolate covered biscuits. The company is also introducing its Collection range, with rrps ranging from £1.99 to £5.98. Everyday, novelty and nostalgia make up the remainder of the Burton's range.
Continental biscuit manufacturer Bahlsen wants to make further inroads into the UK market and has more than 20 Christmas-specific products for this year. The company is currently sponsoring Parkinson on ITV1. Marketing manager Jon Dance says: "We're growing in the UK market all the time, but we want to get the brand on people's radar more than it has been.
"Independent retailers are vital to our business as the independent channel is where we started out in the UK 35 years ago."
There's lots happening in the savoury snacks market, too. Procter & Gamble has launched an on-pack Christmas promotion for Pringles. The 'Pass the Pringles Presents' promotion offers shoppers the chance to win two presents, one for themselves and one for a friend. The company has teamed up with Sony to offer VIP tickets to a Sony artist's gig of their choice. Runners-up prizes include MP3 players and free music downloads.
Other developments include a range of bagged snacks and dips from Sharwoods, and UBUK's relaunch of Phileas Fogg chips, exclusively for the independent channel.
While coffee may not spring to mind as particularly festive, it is undoubtedly a hot drink many families will turn to after dinner, or to perk up in the evening. Fairtrade coffee company Percol has launched its Americano flavour as the coffee of choice for December. It says the variety, made from Arabica beans, complements Christmas flavours such as citrus fruit, Christmas cake, chocolate and gingerbread.
Percol founder Brian Chapman explains: "The flavour is something extra special for the Christmas period. Its rich flavour means that it works well with a whole range of our favourite Christmas treats such as cranberry sauce, marzipan or brandy butter." Percol ground coffee retails from £2.49.
One surefire winner at Christmas is the soft drinks sector. They experience huge growth at Christmas; their importance is evident from the fact sales outstrip chocolate, wine and spirits.
Britvic category director Andrew Marsden says: "The soft drinks category is extremely important for retailers at Christmas. A fifth of all sales in the adult category take place in the six weeks leading up to Christmas. And the category offers very good margins for retailers.
"For Christmas soft drinks it's less about impulse and more about convenience. Big packs of drinks like J2O and Pepsi will sell well. Retailers may need to re-organise the store a bit, but if they can do this and provide a Christmas feel to get shoppers in the party mood, then sales will increase."
Marsden reminds retailers not to forget to provide for children and adds: "It's important retailers cater for a complete age range. The Robinsons brand always sells well as parents stock up for the Christmas holidays."
Marsden adds: "Retailers need to be prepared and re-order stock before the rush. If shoppers see that the store is well stocked with their favourite soft drinks early on, they will know they can rely on the store closer to Christmas Day itself."
Rival manufacturer Coca-Cola aims to boost sales this Christmas with the introduction of new festive on-pack graphics. It is also launching a TV ad featuring the famous 'Holidays are coming' jingle. The Christmas graphics will appear on both Coke and Diet Coke as well as Coca-Cola Zero. Retailers can showcase the Christmas products with a range of pos display units.
Coca Cola head of carbonates Anita Huntley says: "Christmas has always had a special significance for Coca-Cola. Market research demonstrates that consumers are keener than ever to treat themselves and their families at Christmas. Retailers can drive sales by making the most of our eye-catching seasonal pos and on-pack graphics."
Huntley adds: "Recent data shows a significant boost in volume to the cola sector in 2006 and we anticipate particularly good sales for colas this Christmas. Following on from the success of the World Cup and Coca-Cola Zero campaigns, we are confident Christmas 2006 will bring a positive end to a strong year."
Having reinvented itself in recent years in an attempt to appeal to a wider range of consumers, Shloer is also expecting a good performance from its portfolio of adult soft drinks.
Managing director Mike Coppard is confident retailers will benefit from including Shloer's products on their shelves and says: "We have had a very successful year so far and we're looking forward to Christmas and seeing our advert on TV screens again. With the range of cocktails we've developed, Shloer Bucks Fizz and the return of our limited-edition red grape, elderberry and clove flavour, we are confident we will encourage customers to try something new during the festive season. Christmas is traditionally our busiest time and we expect this year will be even better than last."
In the water category, Highland Spring is introducing limited-edition Christmas packaging across a range of products. Sparkling water sells well throughout the festive period and bottled water across the board is predicted to receive a winter boost as people begin their New Year health kicks.
The non-food category provides some ideal opportunities for c-store retailers looking to add to the coffers this Christmas. From decorations and cards, through to toiletries gift packs and batteries, the demand for non-food products is sure to rise.
As ever, manufacturers will bring out new ranges, or tweak their usual lines. Gillette recently launched its Christmas range following the introduction of its Fusion brand in August. The Fusion gift packs retail from £9.99 and when merchandised correctly can provide shoppers with an easy impulse present in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The brand will benefit from seasonal support including TV advertising.
The Fusion Power razors are, of course, just one of many gifts this Christmas which will require batteries, so it's important c-store retailers stock up in time.
Battery manufacturers are offering promotions and pos material to help retailers cash in on the increased demand. Duracell recommends secondary sitings on the counter or at the front of the store, and reminds retailers that 40% of battery sales occur between October and December.
Retailers can also benefit from having a selection of stocking-fillers. Bic, for example, has a Christmas version of its Select pen range. Its fountain pens, mechanical pencils and ballpoint pens will be available in eye-catching snowflake packaging to help drive sales. And DVD company ChoicesUK has 12 Sony feature films priced from £3.99 as part of its Unwrap a Bargain promotion, as well as a number of Christmas CD packs which also retail from £3.99.
It's also worth checking what you're offering in terms of over-the-counter medicines. Over-indulgence at Christmas and New Year is sure to increase demand for indigestion tablets and painkillers.
And don't forget the tin foil. Some 3,000 tonnes of the silver stuff was used to wrap turkeys in the UK last Christmas.
When it comes to selling frozen foods, making sure the cabinet is well stocked with the Christmas dinner accompaniments and standard buffet fare is vital. Frozen sausage rolls, ready-made stuffing, and chipolatas wrapped in bacon will be in big demand over the festive period. Aunt Bessie's sees sales of its roast potatoes, four-minute Yorkshire puddings, mash potato and stuffing balls peak over Christmas, so these are all must-stocks for any c-store.
Desserts will be much sought-after this December, too, and Unilever Ice Cream advises retailers to stock up and cash in on the increased demand for in-home products such as Viennetta. It recommends retailers make the maximum profit from ice cream over the winter months by re-merchandising half of their impulse cabinets with in-home ice cream.
Wall's Viennetta ice cream dessert has launched two flavours for winter: chocolate & orange and caramel. New chocolate & orange Viennetta has waves of chocolate and orange ice cream between crisp chocolate layers, while the caramel Viennetta comprises caramel flavour ice cream between crisp layers of chocolate, all held together with a thick caramel sauce. Both have a rrp of £1.79, but £1 pricemarked promotional packs will be available for a limited period.
Viennetta brand manager Sheila Hesketh says: "Viennetta is a well loved brand with consumers; it's the perfect dessert to share with family and friends on special occasions such as Christmas. The new flavours will add excitement and interest, ensuring retailers' frozen aisles and cabinets are revitalised during the cold winter months."
The last two weeks
Of course, while early sales are welcome it's the final two weeks before Christmas that are key for last-minute items.
At this time of year c-stores can not only provide some relief from the heaving aisles of the supermarkets, they can provide the kind of services stressed out customers really need. HIM sales and marketing director Tom Fender explains that convenience stores should be there to make people's lives easier over the festive period. "Stores need to be open when customers demand it, and speed of service is even more important to customers at this time of year. Retailers need to look at arranging for extra staff, family or friends to work during peak hours."
With shoppers' stress levels going through the roof, Tom suggests that retailers can help by simply welcoming families and being friendly. "Creating fun and a good seasonal vibe can go a long way,"
In terms of range, the first task for retailers is to get the basics right. Look after the staples: bread, milk, eggs, butter and cream. These essentials can easily be missed off bigger shopping lists, or used up quickly as Christmas approaches.
He argues that retailers can turn the Christmas frenzy to their advantage. Shoppers are often in a hurry and focused on other things. For some items they may well shop around, looking for the best deals, but for smaller purchases promotions aren't all that important. He says: "Price is not important at this time of year, so go premium with key products."
When it comes to gifts, Fender is convinced that c-stores can play a part without too much outlay or any major upheaval. He says that it can be as simple as convincing customers to buy what you stock anyway as a gift: "Buy some gift bags so that customers can easily turn a bottle of wine, Champagne or chocolates into a gift."
Secrets to snack success
Merchandise seasonal snacks in the seasonal aisle to gain maximum exposure
Maximise the amount of space available to sweet and savoury snacks
Keep the range simple, but offer a varied choice of flavours
Highlight beacon brands to draw shoppers to the segment
Get products on shelves early to capitalise on profit opportunities
Eliminate clutter and clarify layout for easier navigation
Utilise strong in-store signage to drive consumers to the fixture.
Source: United Biscuits UK
Fresh and chilled hints
Few households will remember to buy absolutely everything for the perfect Christmas, so it's the c-store's job to be on hand for those top-up shops, distress or premium purchases.
Steve Carter, head of buying for fresh foods at Musgrave Budgens Londis (MBL), says: "People will generally trade up at Christmas, so when retailers look at range architecture they should think about consumers trading up from standard lines to better or best products. And because we've got a two- to three-day period when people will be at home, retailers must make sure they've got the everyday essentials like milk and butter."
MBL is supporting its retailers with a Christmas offer in Budgens and Londis. This covers everything from orange juice to party food and is an area that continues to grow and grow, says Carter. "Convenience is seen as a top-up shop, but there's still a huge opportunity to seize extra sales from a good fresh Christmas offer. As the quality of convenience stores continues to improve year on year, people become more reliant on those stores. Availability is getting better and range structure is improving."
Budgens is offering a party food ordering service, including everything from joints of beef, free-range turkey, Gressingham duck and free-range goose, to sandwich platters, canapés and meat platters. "The whole offer is going more and more premium because that's what consumers are asking for," says Carter.
Fresh produce is just as important over the festive period. "When people have the family coming around there's a whole preparation around fresh food, so retailers must look at the core volume products such as bags of sprouts and make Christmas veg readily available. The other thing to remember is that people will consume over the whole festive period, not just on the day.
Promotions are another opportunity for c-stores, adds Carter. "In our Christmas deal leaflet we're seeing more 'two for a price' offers, such as two bags of potatoes for £3 or Tropicana juice three for £4.50. Incentivise consumers with special offers and they'll put more money in
the till for retailers."
Christmas to go
The manic run up to Christmas should prove profitable for c-stores who offer good food-to-go and bake-off sections.
This year Cuisine de France is offering a shortcrust pastry mince pie, which retailers simply thaw and serve.
The product also comes as a festive mince pie with a bag, allowing retailers to offer it as part of a secondary Christmas display. The company has also introduced a nine-pack of mini mince pies with star tops.
Meanwhile, bake-off supplier Bakehouse has a range of alternatives to the traditional yuletide fare. The company is offering a selection pack of its Danish pastries in miniature sizes, which it claims are ideal for festive buffets.
A crisp winter
Makers of premium sharing crisps, Walkers and Kettle Chips, are going head to head with seasonal versions of their big bag favourites.
Walkers Sensations Christmas range has given special festive packaging and comprises three new flavours: sautéd wild mushroom in white wine; crispy aromatic duck with hoi sin sauce; and new Sensations spicy chargrilled chilli oriental crackers.
Kettle Chips has also come up with a short-run Christmas range. It consists of four flavours: apple, sage & thyme; white stilton & apricot; camembert & plum; and sundried tomato & sweet red pepper.
Ones to watch
Joseph Heler has launched a range of mini truckles following the success of its Cheshire Christmas Truckle in recent years.
The handmade 250g truckles, available in Cheshire, Double Gloucester and Red Leicester, are wrapped in authentic parchment-style paper.
Joseph Heler Cheese national account manager Rob Evans says: "Just recently there has been a revival in not just regional cheese but also in speciality and hand-finished cheese. We first trialled our mini truckles in the Cheshire variety, targeting the Christmas market, and witnessed an astonishing demand for the product."