Supermarket Christmas Review 2016

With Christmas eve falling on a Saturday, and most supermarkets reporting their trading week from Sunday to Saturday, this coming week promises to be one of the biggest ever. In fact, most supermarkets will double the sales through their tills compared to a week in October.

We know the customer tends to move to the bigger sites for a one stop shop so it was timely to do a supermarket Christmas review and see how the supermarkets were set up for this big week of trading.  Here’s what we saw when we hit the aisles:

ASDA – Although troubled with falling sales this year and an eroded point of difference on price, ASDA are fighting back. We like the fact they have strong offers on the core Christmas shop. Having all the Christmas lines grouped together makes shopping much easier and they can show case their range. This could cause a bottleneck in the last panic days of shopping though.

General availability has improved, but there are still some problems to fix in household and pet. Service at the tills seems much faster, with plenty of people waiting to process your shopping.

Overall, our impressions was of a store in much better shape, but is that the result of the strategy or the fact there are less people shopping in their stores, so they are under less pressure? The one thing still missing is the ASDA fun shopping experience; unfortunately, it is still a bit dull.

Morrisons – Still getting to grips with a switch of ordering system, Morrisons core availability is struggling. Patchy availability in grocery, BWS and fresh will hurt them this year, but their Christmas and promotional areas are very strong.

Morrinsons Christmas availability

Market street, particularly produce, looks and feels well set up. Early in the New Year, high on the to do list is to sort the core availability issues out.

Waitrose – We like their marketing campaign giving the customer a day by day promotional calendar in the form of a till receipt. Knowing that Christmas dinner accompaniments were on offer last Wednesday did bring customers back into store. They range some exciting and interesting food products, but operationally core availability is a problem that still needs to be fixed. We saw significant gaps a couple of months ago, and they are still there.

Sainsbury’s – Set up this week is good but a bit underwhelming with the centre aisle lacking drama and the stores generally lacking theatre. Strong food performance has helped Sainsburys to stave off the declines seen at Morrisons and ASDA, and there is evidence food will continue to help them but it isn’t through price. The customer could get similar Christmas lines on offer for less at the other grocers.

sainsburys xmas16

We do think they are still missing a trick with TU clothing: the quality is good, and good value for money but the display and merchandising in store lets it down. Time for some real clothing experts to give this a shake up and get the return it should be delivering.

We do like the Sainsbury’s counters; the range is one of the best, if not the best of the big four. Set ups are good and consistent. Such a shame that in the stores we visited, customer service was let down at the checkout, slow and not enough tills open.

Tesco – Still heading back towards the dominating position they once held,  their focus on less peripheral business is paying off. Stores are full and checkouts well manned. It was also the best store for delivering Christmas theatre, with a great centre aisle or action alley, strong displays and Christmas music. The core offer is solid and there are plenty of deals on Christmas essentials and must haves, particularly the larger sizes. Checkouts were well manned and the staff seem to be happy and engaging. Tesco on a march!

tesco xmas 16

With the biggest week just kicked off, and the biggest shopping day of the year expected this Friday, it will be interesting to see who deals with the customer numbers the best. This Friday is predicted to exceed £3bn in takings. The customer can often be lured into a new shopping habits based on their experience this week, so while the lion’s share of that £3bn is nice, the potential for growth into the New Year is nicer still.

Christmas on the High Street – Naughty or Nice?

The local celebrity has flipped the switch and the Christmas lights have been turned on. The High Street is twinkling but are the tills ringing this Christmas? 

We visited a selection of typical High Street retailers to see what they were offering to entice the customer into their stores this Christmas.

Fashion retailers have swiftly moved from Black Friday deals into pre-Christmas promotions that look remarkably like Sale. Clearly the weather will be the most used reason behind slow sales in the Christmas trading updates in January and with good reason. It has been exceptionally mild and retailers with heavy true winter stock need to clear it. If the weather man is right and we do get a white Christmas there will be some very happy customers out shopping. 


In New Look we saw rail upon rail of jumpers and coats on sale with markdowns as deep as 50%. Heavy knits and long maxi fur collared coats are not very adaptable for warmer weather, nor are they very giftable. Being harsh, nor are they very fashion led. Hence the markdowns.

The Sale has been kicking off slightly earlier each year and this years feels earlier still. We are reading about many more fashion retailers going into sale this week so margins will be hit. Post Christmas will bring even deeper discounts and more stock being added but not enough to galvanise the customer to go shopping we fear, particularly if it stays mild.

There are a few exceptions. Everything in Fat Face could be bought as a gift. The brand has enough credibility and kudos to be giftable and the range has a winter wonderland feel to it. That said, the rails were well stocked and we do wonder how sales are against last year.

H&M is the other exception among our visits. In this case it is less about gifting and more about clarity of offer for a clearly defined customer at great prices.


The product is attractive and works trans-seasonally, it is on the whole easy to shop, and ‘gets’ its customer. Yes, there are gifting ranges but they could be carried forward as pure Christmas product was limited to tight ranges.

Next also have missed the boat we feel. Fashionability was lacking as was quality. It feels like the offer has been product engineered to deliver margin but at the expense of desirability and representing good value. We have been big supporters of Next: strong operations, confidence in its offer  and promotional calendar but this year troubles us.

Away from fashion, most retailers have specifically bought Christmas gift ranges. WHSmith was notable in terms of its strong gadget and stationery gift offer at the front of the store.


Range and price architecture ticked all the boxes and was unique enough to encourage the customer to buy it there and then. However, the depth of buy was weak; once it was slightly shopped gaps were evident. This was not exclusively the case for gift ranges either. Depth seemed to have been sacrificed in favour of breadth but without the luxury of space to merchandise it effectively. In fact we defy you to find the right colouring book on the shelf.


The Christmas 3 for 2 gift offer at Boots was there again this year. A strong offer no doubt but at what point does the customer start to get bored of the standard beauty gift set? Yes it ticks a box but it is lazy, lazy for the customer and lazy for Boots. We must start to see something more innovative from Boots to bring the customer in. It it isn’t broken don’t fix it, sure, but be prepared for when it does break.


Wilko was also reliant on the beauty gift set and meets the need of a different demographic. They supplemented the offer with a nicely priced gadget offer which was well shopped early in the season. As was their Christmas decorations. Range gaps had not been filled leaving empty space not delivering a return.


Agile merchandising as ranges sell through is clearly not on the to-do list, and at this point in the season when there is still more than a week of shopping days to go, it is lazy store operations. On the other hand, FSDUs of tin foil baking trays and foil, aisle ends of greats value glasses, napkins and table mats was intelligent and was prompting add-on purchases in the store we visited.

In fashion, we will definitely see a mixed bag of results in January. Those that will have done well will be clear about the customer and have bought confidently with that customer in mind. They will have communicated the offer well and will have been agile in bringing ranges in front of the customer at key points in the calendar.

For general retailers the best will have bought clever and unusual gift ranges that stand well together but are not weather dependent. They will have been priced keenly for the demographic of the retailer and will offer a point of difference that makes the store destination. A product that could be picked up at Tesco and probably at a cheaper price will be sat on the shelf still in January.

Lazy ranging, lazy promotions, lazy store operations will cost the retailer dear.

For our review of department stores this Christmas go and read our blog. And watch out for our review of the supermarkets Christmas offers.

Christmas in review: Department stores missing the point

Christmas time more than any other should be the time when we really get why great British department stores have survived as a shopping destination. This is when the shopping paradise of the department store,  all missions, all occasions under one roof, comes into its own. But does it? The format should resonate with time poor, convenience shopping missions but adds the theatre of Christmas and self indulgence. Yet this is not always the case and suggests flaws in the proposition for some Department store retailers.

Hats off to John Lewis who unsurprisingly come closest to the holy grail of maintaining a high standard of basic disciplines; good availability, clear signage, well thought through adjacencies, friendly customer service and fresh brands and ranges alongside established favourites.

John Lewis kitchen at christmas

Tasteful and cheerful Christmas décor and windows and the best and most shoppable Christmas department we’ve seen in some time project John Lewis to the top of the list. That said, stepping out of the Christmas thoroughfare to more utilitarian areas leaves you with a distinct lack of Christmas cheer, it is with too subtle high level decorations and gifting opportunities missed.


House of Fraser pulled off a similar roll call of wins; the in-store teams managed the balance between friendly service and unobtrusiveness well, ranges were well laid out and availability was excellent. Where it missed the mark is for a mid-market shopper trading-up at Christmas, House of Fraser makes a confusing and patchy proposition, really strong in the good bits and badly let down by obviously unloved areas.

Each floor in House of Fraser feels like it is working independently of the others, putting together stables of brands for completely different customers and creating some very odd adjacencies in the process. There was not one customer who could successfully complete their Christmas shop there.

Gifting and Christmas ranges were tired and shoehorned in to walkways and atriums and category led departments such as eveningwear and coats were unloved and out of place amongst brand coups like The Kooples and Hallhuber. In the Oxford Street store, the tired customer has only a kitch afternoon tea for refreshment which after happily shopping strong menswear and womenswear offers, seems like a serious omission.

debenhams quirky christmas

Debenhams cycle of discounting continues apace with store wide offers on each of the occasions we visited. But behind all the 20% off signage we saw some real green shoots of a strong customer proposition coming together. The exuberant Christmas windows and in-store decorations were just the right side of quirky, giving the impression of a Debenhams committed to offering their customer upbeat and aspirational products at a price within range of the high street.

Christmas gifting at Debenhams was confident and abundant in contrast to generic product categories, where space was overfilled and rails overpacked with items only ever destined for the Sale. If Debenhams can wean it’s customers off the constant cycle of discount events, invest in shop floor staff engagement, reduce overstocking of the shop floor and maximise the opportunities left by the loss of BHS such as lighting and kids wedding-wear, this new fun, more confident approach looks promising.

selfridges Jarring Adjancency

The high end Department stores were much clearer in communicating with their target audience and more focused on delivering a tailored offer. Only Selfridges showed a wobble in this confidence – a desire to be everything to everyone meant some jarring adjacencies such as Lloyds pharmacy to Cowshed toiletries, or Mont Blanc to WH Smiths. Positioning in ladieswear and menswear was better, with clearly zoned propositions. The Selfridges customer is evolving though, top end brands serving as eye candy or for personal shopper experiences leaving the volume of trade in more contemporary, younger, more accessible ranges. This customer wants to feel every inch of the trade up but is still a high street customer too, investing in some key status pieces and enjoying the high end shopping experience.

Harrods was much more focused on true luxury with the exception of the tourist attracting Christmas and gifting areas. The super-brands and high end luxury floors all had customers shopping and browsing, a lot of the trade clearly coming from visitors making the most of the sterling exchange rate. The layout and store environment is appealing to the shopper used to the Middle East and Far East high end mall experience and the collection and curation of brands is confident and unparalleled making it the clear destination of choice for those with the budget to shop. This is a store that knows exactly what it is offering and to whom.

John Lewis Busters Garden

In summary, if the department store Christmas department is a barometer of confidence in Christmas trade this year we would only be backing John Lewis and Harrods. For Debenhams especially with its dominance in gifting this is a huge missed opportunity.

We would be advising department stores to be thinking quickly and honestly about the reason for being and what they can offer their customers to lift them away from the high street trudge and make themselves indispensable. Clarity of target customer will prove to serve John Lewis and Harrods well, the others lack that clarity and confidence and result in a patchy proposition that defies the department store proposition.

Whatever the budget, as a shopping destination these stores should feel special. By maintaining high expectations for your defined customer across all disciplines there is a huge opportunity to fulfil multiple shopping missions under one roof.