Another year has whizzed by and Christmas will soon be upon us. For forecourt retailers the festive season is an opportunity to end on a high with some bumper sales.
This year the tidings are even better, as both Christmas and New Year’s Day fall on Mondays. With people doing last-minute shopping at the weekends and the supermarkets closing early, forecourt c-stores will be perfectly placed to provide those eleventh-hour goodies and forgotten essentials.
"Being open when people don’t expect you to be and providing products you wouldn’t normally be able to get hold of on Christmas Day and Boxing Day are a great advantage," says Mark Torpey, head of retailer support for independent Budgens stores. "Top-up items like bread and milk all sell well, but the big sellers are likely to be flowers, batteries, cigarettes, confectionery and alcohol."
Opening your site on December 25 can literally save the day for some people and for this reason Kent-based retailer Mike Dearing, owner of Chatham Road Service Station in Maidstone, believes that doing so is good practice. "Even if it’s not the busiest day of the year for some sites, it’s about providing good customer service," he says.
Mike plans to use local radio to advertise the fact that his site will be open for business as usual, along with posters on the forecourt. "We’ve included it in our advertising budget for the year and it actually works out quite cost-effective," he explains.
He is also planning to double the stock of frozen turkeys for the site’s 1,000sq ft Mace store, following a successful trial last Christmas. "We sold four turkeys last year. Two of them went on Christmas Day - one to a lady whose dog had eaten their original bird. And we’d already sold the other two on Christmas Eve, " he says.
Christmas puddings also sold well - between 18 and 20 went on Christmas Day alone. And they kept on selling even after Christmas was over, says Mike: "They have a very long shelf life because of the alcohol content - as much as two years - and surprisingly enough people will buy them from us at any time of the year."
Meanwhile, Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE) says soft drinks are the top-selling impulse category in the run-up to Christmas. In forecourts last year sales were up by 6% during this period. Colas, lemonades, adult and sports and energy drinks are said to have shown the greatest growth. Coke alone grew by 27% and CCE is expecting this success to be repeated.
Anita Huntley, head of carbonates, says: "Recent data shows a significant boost to the cola sector already in 2006, so we anticipate particularly good sales for colas this Christmas."
Huntley says the brand’s iconic seasonal advertising means consumers particularly associate Coke with Christmas. This year should be no different, with a new TV ad and festive packaging.
Family gatherings mean bulk packs become more popular and in forecourts sales of these grew by 13% in the eight weeks leading up to Christmas 2005. CCE says forecourt retailers should encourage customers to ’boot fill’ with larger packs while they have their cars parked nearby.
Over at Britvic, category director Andrew Marsden says it’s important to make sure customers are aware of your range when it comes to family-sized packs. Cross-promoting with crisps and snacks, he says, can help boost sales. Two-litre bottles of big brand soft drinks are key.
Marsden adds: "Stocking J2O in your alcohol chiller is also a great way to maximise the festive drinking occasion, either as a credible alternative to alcohol or as an effective pacer between alcoholic beverages,".
When it comes to alcohol your offer may need some tweaking for Christmas, says Nick Vivian, retail marketing manager at Spar wholesaler Appleby Westward. "Do you need more spirits? Have you got enough beer and lager and are the pack sizes big enough? Do you have Champagne or sparkling wine for New Year’s Eve?" he says.
When it comes to beer, Stuart MacFarlane, managing director at InBev UK, says: "Christmas is a huge opportunity that can make a big difference to a forecourt’s performance for the year as a whole."
In terms of timing, MacFarlane reckons retailers should start their festive offer by the first week of November. "That gives you the chance to capitalise on sales by establishing a strong early offer to compete with the multiples. It will reward shopper loyalty early and help maintain traffic during December when the multiples promote heavily," he explains.
MacFarlane says forecourts need not go too heavy on promotions as most purchases will be impulse or distress ones and shoppers will appreciate that they have to pay a bit more.
The top 10 beer brands accounted for 69% of the volume sold last Christmas, so these should be the focus of any range (see box). MacFarlane suggests getting rid of slow sellers and de-cluttering the shelves to increase space for the more profitable favourites.
Finally, says MacFarlane, chilling is a major unique selling point for forecourts and this shouldn’t fall by the wayside in the Christmas rush. With people looking to buy cold beer on their way to parties, keeping the chillers fully stocked is a priority.
Carlsberg UK believes Friday 22, Saturday 23, Friday 29 and Saturday 30 of December will be key selling opportunities for alcohol this year, as people extend their holiday celebrations over the long weekends. It is also launching a limited-edition Christmas beer, described as a rich, dark continental-style lager adapted from Danish brand Tuborg’s Julebryg.
Along with alcohol and soft drinks, crisps and snacks are big sellers throughout the entire festive period.
In 2005 average sales for sharing packs were up by 25% in independent forecourts between September and December, according to supplier Palmer & Harvey.
Cara Beeby, trade marketing manager at PepsiCo, parent company of Walkers says: "At Christmas socialising reaches a peak and households want bigger bags, festive flavours and limited-edition products." Sharing packs and nuts form the core of Walkers’ 2006 range. There are three new limited-edition Sensations flavours: sauted wild mushroom in white wine; crispy aromatic duck with hoi sin sauce; and Thai sweet chilli oriental crackers. These and the eight existing flavours are available in festive packaging from October 22.
There are also new limited-edition Sensations luxury fruit and nut mixes and two additions to the Nobby’s Nuts range - Asian combo and spicy cashews.
Meanwhile Pringles aims to drive sales even higher this year with its ’Pass the Pringles presents’ on-pack promotion, teaming up with Sony to offer music-related prizes such as MP3 players and free downloads. Every tube is a winner, with the consumer getting two prizes - one for themselves and one for a friend. Paul Lettice, trade communications manager at Procter & Gamble, says: "This promotion truly catches the spirit of Christmas - it’s not only about receiving but about giving - and creates an emotional link with consumers, which will encourage impulse purchases and lead to incremental sales."
The draw for the top prize of VIP gig tickets doesn’t take place until the end of February, which Pringles claims will help maintain consumer interest and ensure fewer tubes are left in store. The promotion is backed by a £1.5m media campaign including TV advertising. Special packs are available this month, rrp £1.38.
UBUK has redesigned its range of classic snack drums, using metallic foil for a shimmering festive look. The range includes Mini Cheddars, Twiglets, Footballs and Cheeselets. There are also new additions under the KP nuts banner. The Luxury range has four new variants, while the everyday range of sharing drums has two new lines - sweet chilli and honey roast peanuts. The range is also available in a new re-sealable metallic can format.
UBUK’s Christmas range also covers sweet and savoury biscuits, including tins, with popular brands such as McVities Moments, Jaffa Cakes and Jacobs biscuits for cheese. There is also Family Circle, said to be the best-seller in seasonal biscuit assortments.
The Christmas confectionery category was worth £70.7m to the impulse sector last year, according to AC Nielsen. This was up 5.9% on the year before - representing an extra £4m-worth of sales.
Most orders will have been placed way back in spring and are likely to be arriving any day now, but Masterfoods is reminding retailers of the importance of good availability.
Trade communications manager Andrea Taylor believes the impulse sector lost out on £5.2m worth of sales of Celebrations last year due to out of stocks in the final few weeks.
Meanwhile, Cadbury Trebor Basset is focusing on effective merchandising. Mike Tipping, head of customer relations, says retailers who made an extra effort with their in-store displays last year were rewarded with a boost in sales, perhaps by as much as 40%.
The company says its research shows price doesn’t necessarily drive purchase - theatre, ranging, merchandising and atmosphere are just as important, as is ease of shopping the fixture.
If you’re looking for something special to add to your display, premium liqueur chocolate brand Anthon Berg claims to have just the thing - its range is produced by appointment to the Royal Danish Court, no less.
Distributed in the UK by Tangerine Confectionery, the dark chocolate with marzipan and fruit range has five flavours, with each pack containing 10 chocolates, rrp £4.99. There is also a Jack Daniels pack of five chocolates, rrp £2.29, and two gift packs featuring a range of spirit-filled chocolates, retailing at £5.49 and £4.99.
Unwanted left-overs are part and parcel of the season - and we’re not just talking about the turkey.
Getting stock levels right is a delicate balance. On the one hand you don’t want to miss out on sales by being too frugal, but over do it and you’ll be left with unsold Christmas packs come January.
Some suppliers offer a money-back guarantee, allowing retailers to sell back any unsold stock. However, as they are few and far between, it may be wiser to avoid going overboard on the overtly Christmassy stuff in the first place.
Susie Hawkins, from the Simon Smith Group, says she focuses on creating an atmosphere in store with dressing, rather than relying heavily on Christmas-themed products.
"Be careful with chocolate boxes with Christmas-specific designs. Instead dress up the gift or confectionery merchandising area to give it a festive feel. This way you can still sell most of the chocolates in the New Year," she explains.
As ever, good preparation will help you to avoid problems. "Make a note of what sold well and what didn’t and any other notes to help you plan for next year," recommends Appleby Westward’s Nick Vivian.
And remember next year is nearer than you think!