Season to be jolly

Most commentators are positive about Christmas this year, reckoning that, despite the recessionary environment, consumers will still spend and spend. Carina Perkins looks forward to a sumptuous event

Christmas is an important time of year - even in the midst of a recession. Times might be tight, but it is unlikely that Santa will be retiring his reindeer in the garage any time soon.

For many, Christmas is the last bastion of luxury left and the one time to forget about the pennies and spend, spend, spend.

Data from market research group Mintel reveals that, last year, as many as two in five (41%) of adults said they planned to spend less at Christmas then they had done in 2007. The Christmas spirit was simply too much to resist, however, and the figures show that only 28% of adults actually managed to do this. Three in 10 adults (31%) even spent more than the previous year.

With rising unemployment over 2009, retail prospects might not be so positive this Christmas, but Mintel predicts that retailers who plan well for their target market could enjoy a very healthy Christmas trade. "Although times will be tough, there are still opportunities to be had," says Richard Perks, director of retail and financial research at Mintel. "Retailers that can give their customers what they really want will be ideally placed to ride out the storm and could even gain market share."

Butchers stand at the front of the pack when it comes to offering people what they want for their Christmas meal - top-quality meat and advice about how to cook it. "Many consumers who usually buy their meat in supermarkets will order a turkey from their local butcher at Christmas," says Sally Assinder, marketing manager of Highgrove Fine Foods. "People want something a little bit special, something they cannot get in the supermarket."

No cold turkey

Andrew Lewins, chairman of the British Turkey Federation (BTF), does not expect the recession to have any serious effect on turkey sales this year. "I am hoping that, if anything, there will be a positive effect for turkey," he says. "People who usually have two meats on the table might decide to stick to just one, which will usually be turkey. If they just have turkey, they might buy a bigger cut, or a bigger bird."

Lewins expects more people to turn back to whole birds, which offer good value for money. "In recent years, we have seen the emergence of turkey crowns alongside whole birds, but I think that people will be turning back to whole birds this year. They represent excellent value-for-money when times are tough."

This movement from crowns back to whole birds would be highly beneficial for butchers. "Butchers tend to sell whole birds, so this could be their year," he says. "They can offer value-for-money, provenance and welfare - which is exactly what people are looking for."

Lewins says butchers should concentrate on advertising the provenance and quality of their birds this Christmas. Marketing support will be available from the BTF, which will provide butchers with posters and recipe leaflets. The BTF will be promoting the whole British turkey this year, emphasising the value-for-money it offers. A marketing campaign, expected to hit 35m households, will kick off on Monday 1 December, when a series of chefs will deliver a wide selection of freshly cooked turkey meals to radio stations. These meals will demonstrate ways to use up turkey leftovers throughout the festive period.

In addition, the BTF will run a 24-hour texting service, providing shoppers with defrosting and cooking times. It will also run its freephone British Turkey Hotline until 5pm on Christmas Eve to help consumers with defrosting times and cooking tips. The British Turkey Website, which received more than 100,000 visitors last Christmas, will continue to run its online cooking and defrosting calculator, along with a daily fun competition, carving guide and hints and tips for how to have a stress-free Christmas. Live radio interviews will be broadcast across the UK to convey 'Buy British' and encourage consumers to support the sector.

Broad range advised

Turkey may be top of the table on Christmas Day, but it is not the only meat that butchers should be thinking about for the festive season "We think of Christmas as a 10-day shopping opportunity. People are often off work for two weeks and there are other important meals, such as Boxing Day and New Year's Eve," says Phil Davies, EBLEX trade marketing manager. "People want beef roasting joints, ribs, legs of lamb, rack of lamb, rolled shoulder of lamb - anything that will satisfy a lot of people."

Davies does not expect the recession will have much of an effect on this trend, even though beef and lamb are more expensive this year. "I can't see the recession having a lot of impact. Christmas is Christmas and people will buy what they usually buy."

He does recommend that butchers think about offering a range of products to suit every budget, however, and says butchers should consider including some of the more undervalued cuts in innovative ways. "It is important for butchers to provide a range of different meats and cuts. Butchers can also play a great role in preparing beef and lamb products, so they are ready to cook," he says.

One meat that always enjoys success at Christmas is gammon - tipped to be a top seller this year. BPEX says that gammon is the "perfect choice" for a cost-effective way to feed the family over the festive period, as it not only provides an aromatic roast, but the basis for a variety of quick and easy meals over the following week. "Gammon is a very versatile meat, which has long been associated with the Christmas season," says Keith Fisher, BPEX butchery and product development manager. "It's delicious hot or cold, so there are lots of options for people to choose from."

Butchers should use the months before Christmas to experiment with glazes and cures, so they can offer the consumer something a little bit different from the supermarkets. "It's a good idea to offer customers a range of gammon options at Christmas, not just smoked or unsmoked, but you can also try curing with unique flavour combinations," says Fisher.

BPEX has developed a recipe book for butchers' shops, featuring a host of ideas for using gammon over the festive period. The book contains advice on what to look for when choosing gammon, as well as hints and tips on how to cook it, plus seven delicious festive-themed dishes, including: Roasted Gammon with Ginger Beer, Ginger Glaze and Clementine Relish; Cider Roasted Gammon with Calvados and Apples; and Gammon, Cranberry and Chestnut Tart. Entitled 'Glorious Gammon', it is endorsed by TV personality and gammon fan Anthea Turner.

Marketing activity will focus on encouraging consumers to look for the Quality Standard Mark when buying gammon. "This provides the reassurance that the meat they are buying is fully traceable and has been produced to stringent quality and welfare standards," says Fisher.

To encourage more families to try Quality Standard gammon, Turner will be giving radio interviews in the run-up to Christmas, to discuss recipe ideas and to promote the website www.lovepork.co.uk, where 'Glorious Gammon' is featured.

Those added extras

With a flood of extra customers coming through the door to order their Christmas turkeys, butchers should think about stocking products to accompany their meat.

"People will come into the shop and look around to see what else they can buy," says Assinder. "If you stock more than just meat, you will benefit from impulse buys."

Stuffing, cranberry sauce, goose fat and bread sauce are all big sellers at Christmas, and a great opportunity to generate extra profits. "All these products have a long shelf-life, so they will last for ages. It's really a win-win situation for butchers," says Assinder, who adds that butchers should stock quality products, but nothing too expensive. "At Christmas, people want something a little bit more special than the everyday products in the supermarket, but they are still discerning and will not buy something if they feel it is over-priced," she says.

When stocking sundry products, it is also important to think beyond the Christmas Day roast. "Boxing Day is another big meal, which usually centres around hot or cold meats. Relishes, chutneys, jellies and pts sell well at this time of year and there are also opportunities for ham glazes," says Assinder.

She advises that butchers remain focused, however, and concentrate on what will go with meat, rather than trying to provide absolutely everything. "I don't advocate butchers selling vegetables," she laughs.

Davies says that when thinking what non-meat products to stock, butchers should keep an eye on trends, celebrity chef programmes and anything that is being heavily advertised. "Make sure you stock up on anything that is being heavily promoted and would complement meat," he says.

Assinder agrees, and points to the "phenomenal" success enjoyed by goose fat after it received ringing endorsements from several celebrity chefs. "Goose fat is our biggest seller and sales have increased at an incredible rate over the past few years," she says. "It is still far more popular than duck fat, even though duck fat does the same job and is a bit cheaper. That celebrity endorsement makes all the difference."

Perfect your planning

Planning is the key to a successful Christmas, says Davies, who adds that butchers should already be thinking about what they will stock, how they will lay out their shop and when they need to make their orders. "It's about planning early and for the whole period. There is a danger of working up to Christmas Day and not thinking about the period between Christmas and New Year's Day." Butchers should speak to their stockists and make sure that they can get stock over that period.

Davies says it is also important to think about storage. "Butchers often won't have room for all of the extra orders over Christmas. You need to have a good relationship with your supplier and think carefully about fridge space."

Maturing beef and lamb, for example, will require extra space, and time. "All of these things need to be factored into the planning," says Davies.

To stay ahead of the game, butchers should order in recipe booklets and posters from EBLEX, BPEX and the BTF as soon as possible, and use them to get people thinking about their Christmas meals. "You should also ensure that if you have recipes in the shop, you stock up on the necessary cuts of meat and ingredients," Davies adds.

Think outside the box

Catering customers will already have finalised their orders, so butchers can plan ahead and schedule the work that needs to be done for them. "Butchers will need to think about how they are going to balance their retail trade with their catering trade," says Davies.

Butchers need to think outside the box to maximise sales at Christmas, and Davies recommends they consider selling pre-packed, pre-priced meats alongside loose meat. "Christmas is always busy, which means there are queues," he says. "If you have a strategically placed display of pre-packed meats, customers might pick up the odd joint along with whatever they came in for."

Most importantly, says Davies, butchers must remember that they need to sell, sell, sell. "I always say that butchers are there to sell, not just to serve," he says. "They should be recommending different meats and planting ideas in customers' heads - getting them to think about the other festive meals. Christmas is a great time for butchers' shops, but you have to remember that customers are your only source of income, and it is much easier to get existing customers to spend more than it is to get new customers."


Christmas tidbits

* Christmas 2008 saw the UK consume approximately 10 million turkeys, 25 million Christmas puddings, 250 million pints of beer and 35 million bottles of wine.

* Seven million children leave mince pies and a drink for Santa on Christmas Eve.

* The UK spends 20bn on Christmas, with 1.6bn going on food and drink.

* Henry VIII was the first English king to enjoy turkey, but Edward VII made eating it at Christmas fashionable. Turkey was a luxury until the 1950s, when fridges became commonplace.

* Mince pies date back to medieval times and possibly before. They are descended from a huge pie, which was baked on Christmas Eve and did actually contain minced beef - along with suet, nuts, spices and fruit.

* Mistletoe has a magical reputation of conferring fertility. The "unsuitable" kissing behaviour that it encourages led many churches to ban it, and this ban still exists in numerous parishes today.

* The earliest crackers were introduced in the 1850s to copy the Parisian fashion of gift-wrapping bonbons. Originally they contained novelties and mottos but did not crack - the chemically treated paper that cracks was a later addition.

Source: British Turkey Federation