Posted: 08/01/2019

Christmas trading “better than expected” for indie retailers

ChristmasFirst reports from independent stores suggests shoppers shrugged off the Brexit gloom to deliver strong Christmas trading for specialist food shops.

The festive period was a tale of two halves for the high street for the retail market, with music store HMV calling in administrators on the 28th December while discount supermarket chain Aldi sold almost £1bn of goods last month.

Yet, the general feeling among farm shops and delicatessens that Fine Food Digest has spoken to has been quite optimistic.

“You’d think with all the tales of woe that were being spread around before Christmas – and the way the economy was being discussed – that people would be spending less,” said Sarah Peak, owner of The Cheese Yard shop and café in Knutsford, Cheshire.

“But no. We had a lot of loyal customers coming back to us, and coming into Christmas we were still putting orders in, right up to the last few days.”

An unexpected corporate order picked up at a networking event drove a massive 34% year on year rise in December sales for Peak.

But strip out this windfall and sales of cheese and gift hampers to regular customers were still up by around 5% compared to 2017, she told FFD.

With a trading year starting in May, Peak’s overall sales for 2018 are also 11% up on 2017-18.

Guild of Fine Food steering group member John Axon, at The Cheese Hamlet in Didsbury, Manchester, reported “fairly bouyant” overall sales for December, with takings up 2.5% despite a marginal 1% drop in customer numbers. “Our average basket showed an increase of just over 3%,” he told FFD.

“We had a fairly steady December, although Super Saturday was just insane,” said Axon – who apparently clocked up 80 miles on his Fitbit during Christmas week, in a shop of just 380 sq ft.

For the 3rd year in succession, gin and chutneys were strong sellers alongside the cheeses and seasonal gifts.

“The vibe from our customers was positive,” he added, “and Brexit was probably mentioned less than it has been previously.”

At preserves and pickles supplier Tracklements, owner Guy Tullberg said the overall picture would not be clear until later in January and February, when shops begin to rebuild stock.

But he told FFD: “We had a good, healthy, 8% increase in sales out in December [to retail] as well as a good number of re-orders late December, which is always a good sign.”

At Kent’s Macknade Farm Shop, owner Stefano Cuomo said it was clear that speciality stores needed to make themselves “part of the ‘Christmas experience’”. “That’s exactly what we’ve become for a lot of our customers,” he told FFD. “Walking the shop floor over Christmas felt great.”

The Macknade team had also worked hard on improving systems and reducing overheads ahead of Christmas, he added. “So it wasn’t just about a revenue opportunity but also improvement of margin.”

London greengrocer Andreas Veg had a very successful trading period with December sales up by 14% from last year – despite the grocer closing for five days from the 24th for refurbishment.

While customer numbers did fall on the weekend before the 25th, Christmas Eve was hugely busy for the retailer. There was also an increase in new customers travelling from other areas of London to shop at the store during December.

“I’ve noticed people opting for quality over quantity, with customers prepared to pay more for premium food,” said Andreas Georghiou, owner of the Chelsea-based store.

Cheese and charcuterie did well for the grocer as per every year, but surprisingly so did fresh pasta with the greengrocer selling out before the last weekend of Christmas.

Balsamic vinegars were another top seller for the retailer. One 30-year-old balsamic the grocer stocks – with a huge RRP of £260 – also sold out.

Paul Hargreaves, chief executive at Cotswold Fayre, said that December trading has been “fairly positive across the board”.

“Everyone we have spoken to has said December was ‘better than expected’. I think that’s the phrase that sums it up,” said Hargreaves.

Though December was quite optimistic for both retailers and the wholesaler, November was a “horror show”, Hargreaves said.

“There seemed to be some negativity and pessimism around pushing Christmas in November. Then retailers realised they were being overcautious and had under-ordered so we ended up taking many last minute orders in December right up to our last shipping date on the 21st.”

Interestingly, the wholesaler was down this year on mince pies, Christmas puddings and stollen.

“I think the reason for this is that more consumers are getting these products from Aldi and Lidl, but also that there may be a generational shift here too as less people are buying traditional Christmas food,” he said.





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