Christmas is the perfect time for retailers to show their community spirit. Here three retailers tell Kate Miller why they like to get involved.

There are usually a few more presents under Sarah Eynon’s Christmas tree than in most houses - about 200 of them, in fact. No, she hasn’t got the largest (or the luckiest) family in Wales - the presents are part of a charitable scheme for the elderly, run by local village groups.

Every year Sarah, of Sarah’s Newsagents in Maenclochog, Pembrokeshire, gives over her front room to a huge pile of gift boxes destined for older residents of three surrounding villages.

The scheme started 16 years ago when a local group decided to give the elderly a Christmas treat with a box of seasonal goodies. Eight years later another village joined the scheme, and last year a third village took part. The money for the scheme is raised by fundraising events.

Sarah says that she begins to look out for bargains between October and December to get as much as possible into each box. “I go to three different warehouses to price the groceries - the cheaper I can get the groceries, the better the hampers.”
Hampers range in size from those costing about £3 up to £10 and include items such as tea, tinned fruit, salmon and ham, as well as sugar, biscuits, marmalade, soup, jelly, Christmas puddings and, of course, the obligatory satsuma.

“I don’t put any of the cheap brands in, only the good brands. The older people don’t like the cheap stuff,” says Sarah. She says she has changed what she puts in the hampers over the years as the price of certain items has gone up - butter, for instance, is now so expensive that she leaves it out of the boxes, saying that the senior citizens prefer to have a couple of smaller items instead.

She finishes the boxes with a few nuts scattered around the top for an extra festive flourish. Before coming to her the village groups used to spend any money raised at the local supermarket and give each pensioner a plastic bag filled with groceries. But Sarah says people like the fact that the presentation is better now.

As she doesn’t get confirmation that the contract will be renewed for another year until November, Sarah makes sure that if the worst happened she could sell all the extra stock in her store.

Sarah saves the boxes throughout the year and then painstakingly covers them in Christmas paper. Then they are stored in her front room until they’re picked up in batches right up until Christmas Eve.

Her older customers love receiving the boxes and often pop in to say thank you. The hampers also drive extra sales. If, for example, she puts a particular item in, customers will often pop in to enquire whether she has any more. But that’s not why she does it, she says. “I’m doing my bit to help the community. That’s what it’s all about really.”

Jonathan James likes to give visitors to his four Cambridgeshire Budgen’s stores, which include three forecourts, a musical welcome; he gets a local brass band to play outside. A former solo cornet player himself, Jonathan says enjoys the involvement of the band as much as his customers and encourages the musicians to make collections to help keep the band going. “Last year they raised £200 on one Saturday.”
Further festive flavour is provided by giving away free hot mince pies which, he says, are extremely popular with customers.

Jonathan makes sure he gets involved in as many of the community celebrations as possible. “I’m always involved in the Christmas activities,” he says. These include compering local charity events and getting involved with the local Round Table. He also sponsors the Ely Cathedral Christmas concert, which was televised last year.

On late-night shopping days he opens his car park to both shoppers and a mini funfair. And Jonathan joins in the Chatteris Christmas lights by putting a Father Christmas and sleigh on top of his forecourt canopy. “The lights really are something to behold; there are even organised bus trips to come and see them,” he explains.

Jonathan says that Budgens encourages him to get involved in seasonal events all year round. “My business development manager sits down and goes through the calendar to see what can be done. One way or another we do quite a bit.”

Across the Irish Sea Kenny Bradley, who owns three forecourts and one Spar c-store in and around Garvagh in Northern Ireland, is looking forward to a visit from Santa. For the past three years Kenny has arranged for Santa to visit each of his stores. On the morning of the visit he’ll drive through the local village to advertise the fact he’ll be popping in later in the afternoon - and the first 100 children to turn up to see Santa receive a free present.

“I saw how busy the village was when the council had Santa switch on the Christmas tree lights and it
got me thinking,” he says. “The kids are future customers and I like them to visit, so I create a friendly atmosphere for them. It’s also a way for me to give something back to the parents.”

Up until now Kenny has advertised the visits in the local newspaper but this year he says that he’ll be cutting back on the ads in favour of doing more events in store.
“I’ll be giving away mince pies and sweets to parents this year - it’s a reward for them and a sign of my appreciation for their custom.”

Kenny says that it’s getting involved in the community that makes smaller stores stand out against the mults, and at this time of year they can really show how much a part of the community they are. “Tesco doesn’t dish out £500-£1,000- worth of free stock to customers, or if it does it’ll be something the supplier has given them. We’re trying to build up a community relationship in the area.”