Deck the Halls with Boston Charlie...

It was always my favourite, fractured yuletide ’carol’. I thought originally that it referred to some mafia ’event’ involving an unfortunate Boston-based bloke called Charlie, and his fate was to be plastered around the walls. But that turned out to be wrong as it’s just a nonsense rhyme that relates to the American satirical cartoon Pogo. And the actual first line goes ’Deck us all with Boston Charlie’. Sounds even messier.

Still, Christmas is a-coming. And how do you season it?

I was talking to Jonathan James, a seasoned forecourt operator, for some quotes to go into our energy saving feature for January (look out for some good pointers), and got onto the subject of Christmas.

"It’s extremely busy and weather dependent," he says.

But he debates whether opening all hours is actually appreciated by customers.

"We used to open on Christmas Day at Ely, our busiest site (he has since leased five of his six sites out to BP and Petrogas) but only with staff volunteers. We paid triple time and a brass band played. We were only open for four hours, from 10am to 2pm, and we would be unbelievably busy. There were queues so we had staff handing out Quality Street. But I don’t think opening long hours on Christmas Day sits well with the public."

He thinks that people think everyone should be having Christmas Day off even if a forecourt has a 24-hour policy.

In fact he tells a humorous anecdote: "The downside was that it was the only time we ever set the alarm, because we were open all the time. And it would never set because some sensor had been painted over or something. So we had to get the engineers out on Christmas Eve. Never popular."

At his remaining self-run site at Dersingham, Norfolk, there will be extras this Christmas. For one, the Salvation Army band.

I cannot imagine a better band and, remembering the movie Guys and Dolls, with its Sally Anne band and its lovable crims, I can’t help but think that ’Deck us all with Boston Charlie’ would be a stonking good carol for them to sing.

What’s the best own brand?

Ga-a-ah! It’s him again. Gassing Around (GA) who sends me playful emails and sticky questions. Which is the best own brand? I ask you. It depends, I emailed back. Where do you get your supplies? Well, I might change suppliers, he replied.

Own brand is on a roll at the moment and has been for some time. It has the starring role in the big supers and although money is part of the equation, that is only part of the story.

The fact is that the UK has come a very long way. Own label is mature now one of the oldest in the world, so the labels (once ghastly) are good and the quality improved to the point that own-brand lines regularly outsell branded ones.

Market research company him! says that customers buying own label spend 32% more than the average shopper in convenience and most buy four items or more each trip. This makes it an important statistic shoppers have plenty of choice these days. So you need to go for footfall and drive up those spends.

The company also says that a credible own-label offer is a key way of driving loyalty: it can be your USP (unique selling point) which means some shoppers will single you out. According to one of its surveys, him! found that 42% of shoppers rated the quality and range of own label in convenience stores as ’excellent’.

But you can’t just bung it on the shelf; categories must be assessed and decisions made over stock.

You have to strike a balance between own brand and branded. If you get that right you are onto a winner.

This may sound like I’m telling you how to suck eggs but plenty of stores still get it wrong and plenty of retailers are taken aback after doing some careful studying of their sales. Thought soup was a best seller? Think again. It might be in Blogg’s store but maybe not in GA’s.

Don’t just suck it and see

Regarding analysing your sales, a piece of software may be the answer. And CCTV is the mechanism. The company offering the download is Footfall Analytics.

It says in the press release that in-store CCTV is used to track and analyse customer movement and interaction through visual maps, charts and graphs.

Analysis of the data then provides retailers with a better understanding of the behaviour of their customers so that any changes, for example to store signage, shop layouts or staff numbers, can influence footfall and conversion rates positively.

It’s not a new concept says the boss, Gurshinder Liddar. "The difference with this approach is that most of the technology required is already in place a major part of the investment has already been made."

The thing is you can play around with this, try it out in various bits of the store, and shopper privacy is not compromised because you are filming them anyway. Have a look at

Jingle tills!

As usual at this time of year I wish you all health, wealth and safety. May your tills jingle all the way to next year and beyond.

Merry Christmas everyone.