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When it comes to Christmas, it’s never too early to start planning. And with autumn approaching, most butchers will be channelling a lot of effort and energy into working out how to ensure the busiest time of year flows as smoothly as possible.

So, with four months left to go, how should you best use your time to get the most out of Christmas? Refining the order taking system, planning how to tackle endless queues and devising strategies to up-sell are all things that can be done now.

John Mettrick of JW Mettrick & Sons in Glossop, Derbyshire, has come up with a creative answer to endless queues, which he is going to deploy for the first time this year. “We are going to have a turkey drive-through,” he explains.

“We had a word with one of our neighbours who has a yard behind our shop, and we are going to put up a turkey tent, so customers can pull up in their car, pick up their turkey or hamper, then off they go into the distance. We will make a sign with ‘turkey drive-through’ on it and one of the students will ask them what they have ordered, then go into the refrigerator and bring it back into the tent and pass it into the car.”

The turkeys will all be pre-paid, he says, and it will be totally separate from the shop. “Hopefully it will take some of the pressure off the queue, because our queues got so big one year that some people said it put people them off coming the year after, which is no good.”

Mettrick is also offering a delivery service, dubbed ‘turkey by taxi’. “It is something we have done for a few years,” he says. “David Lidgate [of Lidgate’s Butchers in London] was the first to do that with black cabs in London, and we are using the airport taxis that normally go to Manchester airport.”

When it comes to Christmas week, Joe Collier, who runs Eastwoods of Berkhamsted tries to ensure the queuing customers stay jolly and don’t have to hang around too long. “People waiting for their orders in the shop really doesn’t go down well, so we make sure we are two or three days ahead,” he says. 

“We also offer people mulled wine in the queues. Some people phone up and ask, ‘how is the queue going?’, so they can make sure it is not too long. Others quite enjoy it, because there is that nice Christmas spirit.”

Working out what caused snags the previous year and developing strategies to overcome them is crucial, says Douglas Scott of the Scottish Federation of Meat Traders Association. Customers losing their order sheets, or forgetting which name they ordered it in, or butchers misspelling names can cause big delays in the day or two before Christmas. “There are all sorts of things that can slow the system down,” says Scott, “so the important thing is trying to refine it, so you can get orders together as quickly as possible.”

Even if you use these strategies, there are still likely to be queues, and butchers must plan how they are going to most effectively handle the orders. Scott says that while most butchers box up Christmas orders before customers come to collect them, one alternative system for those who are both short of space and highly organised is to make up the order in front of the customer. “We have got some butchers in Scotland who take 1,500 orders and don’t make any of them up, but they have got a very efficient system of picking exactly what was ordered when the customer comes to pick it up,” he says.

To make this system work, butchers must be highly organised. “It means they have to know how many 3lb sirloin joints they’ve got to have ready, how many packs of four 8oz sirloin steaks they’ve got to have ready, and how many packs of fillet steaks they’ve got to have ready,” says Scott. “It is not a run-of-the-mill system, but it can work very well.”

Paying for Christmas orders in advance can also speed up your queues. Trying to process payments as well as sorting out the orders can be a major headache when you have a queue that stretches down the street, says Scott. “The nearer to Christmas Eve you get, the slower the card system seems to work, so there is a lot of time wasted there. If you have a unit price for some items rather than charging by weight – for example charging £50 a turkey – it makes it easier for customers to pay beforehand.”

When it comes to taking orders in the autumn and winter, Mettrick believes it is important the butcher, rather than the counter assistants, speaks to the customer. It is something he is putting into place this year. “We are hoping that by having the butchers doing it, we can get additional sales by offering them things like pigs in blankets, streaky bacon and goose fat,” he says.

Mettrick is planning to put an order point with order book next to the butcher’s block. “At weekends there will be three or four butchers on and they will be briefed about how to draw the extra custom out of the customers,” he says. Mettrick eventually plans to make the Christmas order system flow even more smoothly by completely computerising it, with a laptop in the shop.

Ideally, Scott suggests, butchers should start planning for Christmas in January. “If you’re starting now, you’re probably too late,” he says. “In January, when the dust has settled from Christmas, take a note of what happened and what could have been done better.”

Reviewing how the previous Christmas went is important, because it allows you to look at whether anything went wrong and how you could stop similar things happening this year, says Collier. “We look at how to handle different situations, such as whether customer service was good enough, did we fall down anywhere, did we let anybody down? Hopefully the answer to that is no,” he adds. “We are very fortunate and get lots of compliments, but you cannot take that for granted, you must always be looking out for where you could slip up somewhere.”

While the majority of the meats sold at Christmas need to be fresh, there is a certain amount of preparation that can be done in the weeks and months leading up to December. “Planning is key,” says Collier. “You can do things like getting the sausage meat made and filled out into sleeves and that can be frozen down.”

“In Scotland there is a big trade in steak pies over the New Year, which can be a logistical nightmare,” says Scott. “But butchers can get themselves well-prepared for that. Lots of them will be dicing shoulder steak for that right now, and putting it in the freezer, so they can cook it between Christmas and New Year. A lot of other people prepare things like their pork for their stuffing and their sausages and freeze them, because making chipolatas can be quite labour-intensive.”

It wouldn’t be Christmas without turkey and The British Poultry Council estimates between nine and 10 million of the birds will be sold this year. “When you consider that there are around 25 million households in the UK, and we usually assume that on average two households get together for Christmas, it becomes apparent that turkey is still the main Christmas meat,” says a spokeswoman.

Coming up to the end of August, most butchers will have planned where they are going to get their turkeys. Premium suppliers, such as Kelly Bronze and Copas, have been taking orders throughout the summer in order for them to buy the right number of poults.

Jodie Cavaye, sales and marketing manager of Copas Traditional Turkeys says the company is on track to sell a similar number of birds as last year: “Orders tend to be placed early in the year and the previous season is the best indicator. We are on track to produce around 40,000 turkey crowns, roasts and whole turkeys,” she says.

Copas is a niche producer, rearing turkeys specifically for Christmas. The birds are dry-plucked by hand, raised to full maturity and hung for two weeks. While the uncertain economic conditions have encouraged consumers to become more frugal over the past few years, Cavaye says when it comes to Christmas, consumers aren’t cutting back. “Customers tend to trade up at Christmas, so sales aren’t necessarily affected, even if customers’ buying behaviours change during the rest of the year. Butchers can be confident and it is important they are stocking the right premium products.”

Collier sells Kelly Bronze turkeys for Christmas. When it comes to ordering the right number, there is a certain amount of guesswork involved, he says. “If we sell 400 turkeys one year, it doesn’t mean we’ll sell 400 the next; we could sell 300 or 500. You have to take a view on it and it is a gut feeling really.”

However, extras are always useful for keeping in the freezer, because customers sometimes ask for turkey for special occasions later in the year, he says.

While for most of Mettrick’s customers turkey is still the centrepiece, over the past few years some people have shown interest in three-bird roasts. However, most consumers cannot afford them. “We need to make bird roasts more affordable,” he says. “We are trying to design one in the next couple of months that comes in between £25 and £30 rather than £150, because you are going to sell a few of those, but not in any volume.”

Poultry is certainly not the only Christmas centrepiece however. In fact, according to Kantar Worldpanel, beef outperforms turkey in terms of both overall sales and growth. In the four-week period ending 26 December 2010, the volume of beef sold grew 11.5% to 29.7 million tonnes (mt). Turkey meanwhile grew 3.4% to 23.3mt. The value of the beef market rose during the same period 10.4% to £172.5m, while turkey sales were up 10%, indicating big price rises, to £116.3m.

Scott concurs that beef is becoming a more popular option at Christmas. “Last year, more people were taking a special joint, such as a bone-in sirloin,” he says. Collier agrees: “We do an awful lot with carvery ribs of beef, they are very popular.”

Eblex agrees beef is becoming an increasingly popular choice at Christmas. Beef roasting joints, along with stewing cuts and mince, were key drivers of growth last year. With this in mind, Eblex will be providing butchers with a winter-themed kit, to help them promote various cuts, such as a premium rump throughout November and December. The kits, which will contain recipe booklets and promotional posters, will be issued to Quality Standard scheme members and butchers who registered to receive the seasonal kits at the beginning of the year.

Mike Whittemore, retail project manager for Eblex, says: “It is certainly worth expanding the range of premium beef and lamb roasting cuts during December to appeal to customers; from those looking for an alternative to a traditional turkey dinner, to joints more suitable for smaller entertaining occasions.”
Eblex says cuts such as easy-carve rump roast and traditional rump roast are worth offering at Christmas, because rump is in plentiful supply. Some customers opt for lamb at Christmas and Eblex recommends boneless lamb saddle, which makes a great centrepiece with very little waste, and lamb shoulder, which is a traditional-looking joint.

Customers’ time constraints are another factor to take into consideration when planning for the festive season. Offering pre-prepared quality meals, such as Beef Wellington, is a great way to create a competitive point of difference – if you have the time and staff available. Stocking-up with festive trimmings and condiments will also add value both to your customers’ shopping experience and to your bottom line, adds Whittemore.

Pork and pork products remain a firm favourite with consumers during the festive season. From premium roasting joints and stuffing, to bacon, sausages, gammon and ham, customers love the versatility pork has to offer. “We would recommend butchers stock traditional premium roast loins of pork, or even loin rack joints,” says Bpex butchery and product development manager Keith Fisher. “Both will make wonderful centrepieces for your customers on Christmas Day, and offer a great alternative to a beef sirloin roast.

“When it comes to the trimmings, quality pork chipolatas, wrapped in thick bacon rashers, and pork stuffing balls will complement any roasting joint. And don’t forget the gammon. It’s not only succulent and tasty, but it’s also really easy to prepare and can be used to create a number of delicious meals – hot or cold – during the festive season.”

In addition to selling individual cuts and products, butchers should also consider offering selection boxes. Fisher adds: “Selection boxes and even gift cards are a great way to encourage an increase in trade over the Christmas period. By offering additional services on top of your usual offerings, you stand to increase profits and help customers.”

Mettrick is doing just that. For the first time this year he is selling hampers containing everything for Christmas dinner. Priced between £98 and £150, the hampers contain a turkey breast joint, pigs in blankets, streaky bacon, goose fat for cooking roast potatoes, some sausage meat for making stuffing and a pork pie for the evening. Mettrick believes the hampers will appeal to customers who want to budget for Christmas.

“We have always done hampers for business clients when they have asked and made them bespoke,” says Mettrick, “but this is the first year we are looking to push them out to customers so they know how much they are spending.”

To make paying even easier, Mettrick is running a weekly pre-payment scheme, so customers can pay around £7 a week from 18 September up until Christmas. “It has the advantage that customers can budget for Christmas better, and it gives us the opportunity to sell a lot of Christmas product in one go.”
Christmas, needless to say, is the crucial trading period of the year. The period between November and January often accounts for 30% of a butcher’s annual turnover, says Scott, and this means it is often the most difficult time to manage. “There is always a bottleneck at Christmas. It is important to give these people who are your customers the quality of service they are accustomed to. You have got to be efficient and pleasant while under stress.”

However, it is important to remember Christmas is the perfect opportunity to impress the occasional customer, and encourage them to come back in the New Year. “There is a recognition that butchers have the best product,” says Scott. “The challenge for the rest of the year is to make sure customers come back to the butcher’s and not the supermarket,” he adds. “It is the perfect opportunity to give people a taste of what they are missing.”