Christmas is coming… Don’t panic

By Stuart Gates
Published 23rd September 2019

Christmas, or the trading period in the build-up, is still key to most, if not every, company associated with supplying consumer goods.

However, it seems today retailers, with a lot of encouragement from producers, like to push this trading period earlier and earlier. Now on one hand this may be very tempting and even sensible in trading terms but I think we need to have some balance with that strategy.

I started work at Harrods in the September of 1975 (strangely – to me –  my son just recently watched the band 1975 at Reading Festival!) and I was shocked, yes that is the right word, to see the Christmas decoration department was in the process of opening. ‘Tree Trim’ as it was known of as then. The reason was to catch the high spending customers from the USA (who just loved Christmas baubles and the like) at a time when they were in London in their droves and taking advantage of the exchange rate. There were not many Brits in sight as I walked through the department 10 times a day to my cubby hole in my first job at the store (at 16 years old) which was dealing with all the broken toys and returned gifts that people did not want (I had imagined retail would be a more exciting than that) however, the early opening of the Christmas department suited the store’s valued customers at that time.

In later years the Harrod’s Toy Kingdom area gradually transformed into the Christmas department around early November which I think is about right. And later still when I managed at Fortnum & Mason the owners thought it not right to go “full on” with the Christmas windows and staff members in their red Christmas coats until after Remembrance Sunday in early November. Having said that Fortnum’s always had their catalogues ready by late September for their Hampers service as their corporate gift customers had decisions to make, approvals to seek etc well in advance of the Christmas season. Of course, this was pre internet when snail mail was the order of the day and timing was key for sending the 1000’s of catalogues to households across the world.

Careful planning and timing all helped with the general excitement of the build-up of Christmas rather than fatigue which I fear can be the case today.

Careful planning and timing all helped with the general excitement of the build-up of Christmas rather than fatigue which I fear can be the case today. The humble Christmas pudding which used to be a cornerstone of Christmas trading is now often discounted to silly prices in September such is the fatigue in early Christmas trading now.

An important part of any Christmas trading was that margins were high and were protected at Christmas. If you did get them wrong you would adjust immediately on Christmas Eve or take the hit after Christmas. Harrods and F&M sold tons of puddings in the January sale and puddings, like grocers, get better with age!

Finally, I would urge retailers to resist the temptation to start Christmas too early, there are so many great opportunities to promote in the autumn and colder winter months before Christmas goes full on. British produce is great in the autumn, people start cooking again after the summer of salads and barbeques, we all look to heartier dishes, red wines etc and this period is a particular good one for specialist retailers and the most should be made of it.Thanksgiving, Bonfire Night, Halloween parties all great opportunities but if the customers are tripping over the brandy butter then everybody can miss out!  Happy Christmas one and all.

Illustration: Ailbhe Phelan

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