'Tis the season

Time to make merry--and boost basket size during the holidays!
Shutterstock/Partake Brewing

It’s the most wonderful time of the year ... or at least it will be sooner than we think. While most of us are in denial about the winter weather ahead, some grocers are already in holiday prep mode. And for good reason—whether your customers are celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah or winter solstice, the holidays are considered the busiest time for retail, and grocery, of course, is no exception.

According to a 2018 holiday insights report from market research firm Field Agent Canada, 39% of Canadians expect to spend more on groceries for their holiday meals. If the U.K. is any indicator, only four in 10 consumers set a budget for Christmas groceries, according to a Christmas 2018 market forecast from IGD Retail Analysis. This suggests the majority of shoppers throw caution to the wind to treat themselves during this time. In fact, the IGD report notes that 71% of shoppers said they perceive Christmas as a time to “splash out on food and groceries.”

Most shoppers also engage in holiday shopping regardless of their faith, says Nupur Saxena, managing director of Split Second, a U.K.-based consulting firm that specializes in helping brands get listed with retailers. “You need something to look forward to in the dark days of winter, and people are staying in more and entertaining more at home, which is reinforced with good food and drink,” she explains.

Saxena says the reason U.K. retailers continue to dominate globally when it comes to holiday innovation and shopper engagement is because they are planning their Christmas campaigns some 18 months out and getting shoppers excited about the holidays. “Successful grocers understand what makes their shoppers tick, and what specific categories they’re buying more of during this time,” says Saxena. She points to retailers like Marks & Spencer who were first to market with a meal deal idea, offering a main, dessert and bottle of wine during the year, but then elevating that over the holidays to include more luxurious ingredients paired with prosecco or champagne. “If you make sure to cater to shopper needs, that will drive spend in your outlets.”

Here’s a look at some of the categories where you can entice holiday shoppers and help make your sales sing.

•• Appetizers ••
Move over, charcuterie, and make way for the “grazing” board. “With so many selective eaters out there, a grazing board offers a little bit of everything—beyond just meat and cheeses,” says Jo-Ann McArthur, president of Nourish Food Marketing. “On a grazing board, you can have a vegetarian protein, a keto option, as well as crackers.”

Convenience is key, especially during the busy holiday season, so consider offering elaborate pre-made party trays or prepare a customized charcuterie board for them while they shop. This is also a great way to up-sell high-quality product. “We do some experimentation in our deli section over the holidays, offering new seasonal cheeses from both local suppliers and abroad,” says Giancarlo Trimarchi, co-owner of Ontario-based independent grocery chain Vince’s Market. “Then we are sure to promote things that go well with these cheeses, like high-end salamis, crackers and jams.”

For shoppers who want to do it all themselves, highlight products that help make it easy. “Put things together for the shopper almost like a paint-by-number set so they can entertain easily,” advises McArthur. “You have to think like a shopper and not a category manager.” To that end, Bothwell Cheese has just introduced Snack’Rs, an already-cubed premium-quality sharp cheddar cheese snack for the holidays that is Non-GMO and Kosher-certified. Consider pairing that with good quality crackers such as Mary’s Organic Crackers, which has a variety of tasty, gluten-free options, including a new line called Real Thin in Sea Salt, Garlic Rosemary, Sweet Onion and Cayenne Pepper flavours.

Cate Batson Baril, director of marketing at Mary’s Organic Crackers, says the brand gets tremendous feedback on how people are using their premium crackers on charcuterie boards via Instagram. She suggests grocers further cross-merchandise over the holidays by putting crackers near shelf-stable olive spreads or by the refrigerated regular and nut-free cheeses and hummus. “We had a great promotion one year with where we put our crackers by the wines along with some shelf-stable, high-end salamis,” she says.

•• Dinner items ••
Those grocers who do well on dinner item sales recognize that today’s consumers don’t want to compromise on fresh, quality products for their holiday mains. And value-added/convenience-focused holiday dinner items have been very successful for a number of grocers in recent years. Pete’s Frootique in Halifax offers full turkey dinners for pickup on Christmas Eve, along with a table centrepiece and dessert sourced from a local bakery. Toronto’s Summerhill Market has been doing turkey dinners with all the fixings for almost 20 years, offering all the traditional sides such as squash green beans, gravy and cranberry sauce. This year Summerhill is also developing a fully plant-based holiday dinner. “Customers’ palates and knowledge of food has increased and you can’t get away with offering something that doesn’t taste good,” says Summerhill co-owner Christy McMullen. “We probably sell 5,000 turkey meals alone during the holidays.”

To satisfy holiday traditionalists, look to suppliers such as Hayter’s, a family-run turkey farm in Dashwood, Ont., which offers holiday favourites like a whole turkey with simple preparation and cooking instructions, as well as a smaller seasoned breast roast or turkey fillets in a variety of flavours (Honey Garlic, Teriyaki, etc.). Meanwhile, manufacturers like Gardein offer meat-free products ideal for entertaining, ranging from faux chick’n scallopini to golden fishless fillets.

•• Desserts and confectionery ••
According to the latest figures from Statistics Canada, December is the biggest sales month for candy, confectionery and snack foods for large retailers. But even the smaller grocers are cashing in on “sweet tooths” over the holidays. Trimarchi says Vince’s Market always does well with in-house made holiday
cookies and shortbread, as well as the ones imported from Germany and Austria. “People come to us for the European cookies and chocolate they won’t get at their local pharmacy or big chain,” he says.

And don’t forget about those guests following special diets, even during the holidays, and even for dessert. Sweets from the Earth, which recently expanded to a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Toronto and signed on with its first U.S. grocer, provides a full line of nut-free, gluten-free and 100% plant-based baked goods. The company’s holiday cupcake four-pack and festive dome peppermint cake can be a great addition to the traditional dessert table. Sweets from the Earth is also launching a line of keto, sugar-free products before the holidays, including brownies, blondies, granola clusters and cookies. “Sampling is important with our products because it allows people to see that the texture and taste is just as good as baked goods,” says vice-president Marc Kadonoff.

•• Hot beverages ••
The holiday season coincides with colder temperatures here in Canada; with that comes a hankering for hot beverages. Fortunately, shoppers are realizing the grocery store can be a mecca for quality teas and coffees they can enjoy in the comfort of home. Products like Tierra Organic from Lavazza Premium Coffees are a good option for shoppers concerned about ethical coffee practices. The company partners with the Rainforest Alliance, which certifies coffee bean farms to ensure they are meeting rigorous environmental and social standards.

Try stocking holiday-themed coffees and teas like a limited-edition Christmas tea from Twinings or Holiday Blend from Starbucks, and offer entertaining-related solutions by cross-merchandising hot beverages alongside baked goods or shelf-stable desserts.

•• Wine, beer and non-alcoholic options ••
Holiday toasts are integral to the season, and those grocers able to carry wine and beer can help shoppers plan the perfect party in one stop. All the better if products are locally sourced and tied to an engaging story. Toronto-based Don’t Poke the Bear co-founders Andrew von Teichman and Allan Jackson, for example, were bullied as children and now donate five cents from each of their craft ciders and 25 cents from each bottle of their red, white and rosé wines to anti-bullying resources. “The holidays can be a high-pressure time for those hosting and you want wines that will appeal to a broad audience,” says von Teichman. “Our label is playful and memorable, but then find out what we are doing on the bully prevention side and it takes it to a whole next level.”

With a growing number of people opting not to drink alcohol for a variety of reasons, it’s important to stock up on non-alcoholic options, and to make customers aware of them. Fortunately, some newer innovations have a much more sophisticated flavour profile than traditional alcohol-free offerings. Partake Brewing is one example. Founder Ted Fleming developed his award-winning alcohol-free craft beers after a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease forced him to give up booze. “There is a stigma around what non-alcoholic beer is, and the best way to beat that is to sample products like ours so people see that they taste great,” he says, noting that all Partake craft beers are only 10 to 30 calories each.

•• Hostess gifts ••
There’s a bad rap around gifts that come from the grocery store, so grocers need to up the ante when it comes to hostess options, says Field Agent Canada’s general manager Jeff Doucette. “Have pre-wrapped, grab-and-go solutions that look really good and trays of food that don’t look like they came out of your HMR department,” he says. “Offer baskets that people can customize with gluten-free items that show the has put some thought into it.”
Simply pairing a few high-quality items together can also make a great hostess gift in a pinch, says Baril of Mary’s Organic Crackers. “We have an herb cracker with fennel that’s a killer with a roll of goat cheese that would make a great gift, especially if you’re not sure if your hosts like to drink.”

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’September/October issue.

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