As the festive season approaches, Donna Ahern takes a look at what retailers need to know in the run up to the all-important, and post-pandemic, Christmas period.
Christmas was certainly different in 2020 compared to previous years, but pared back festivities didn’t stop Irish families from looking for ways to keep spirits high.
As Christmas in Ireland is the largest celebration of the year, grocery shoppers are known to loosen the purse strings and to splurge a little on festive fare.
With restrictions lifted, Christmas 2021 will undoubtedly be a holiday season like no other.
Reflecting on last year, take-home grocery sales in Ireland rose by 17% in the 12 weeks to 27 December 2020, according to figures published by Kantar on 11 January.
A record-breaking €1.2 billion was spent on groceries in December, making it the busiest month ever as families navigated evolving lockdown restrictions and prepared for Christmas.
Despite the fact that there was a temporary easing of restrictions on eating and drinking out in December, most of us still turned to the supermarkets to provide us with some sorely needed festive cheer.
“As an extraordinary year drew to a close, the average shopper spent €134 more on groceries in December than they did last year ,” commented Emer Healy, retail analyst at Kantar.
“Wednesday, 23 December was the busiest shopping day of the year, when almost half of the Irish population hit the supermarkets. But overall grocery spend was more spread out during the run up to Christmas than we’d normally expect to see, as consumers with more time on their hands at home took the opportunity to prepare early.”
Fewer guests to host meant a smaller scale feast and the Kantar data revealed that shoppers spent €1.2 million less on whole turkeys over the four weeks to 27 December, 2020, compared with the same period in 2019.
“The traditional turkey was off the menu for many this Christmas as lots of Irish households favoured smaller cuts of meat,” said Healy.
“In a break from the norm, we spent €938,000 more on turkey rolls, €398,000 extra on roast beef, and an additional €480,000 on roast pork in December.”
Classic Festive Favourites
Some classic festive favourites prevailed and sales of sprouts were up by 7.3% last year.
Although not a traditional Christmas, shoppers still tried to make it a merry one and to treat themselves after a tough year.
Our collective sweet tooth saw an extra €6.7 million spent on chocolate confectionery in December 2020.
“We also parted with €3 million extra on cheese and, as we all raised a glass to the end of 2020, alcohol sales soared by 33%,” said Healy.
Novelty Packs Sales
On behalf of Checkout, Nielsen IQ took a look at the performance of Ireland’s FMCG brands for the four weeks ending 27 December 2020, compared to the same period in 2019.
Although usually a key player during the Christmas period, confectionery only grew by 8.4% in this four-week period, compared to 2019.
This meant that confectionery accounted for only 6.7% of total incremental sales in the four weeks ending 27 December, compared to 9.8% of incremental sales in the same period in 2019.
Within confectionery, many Christmas categories experienced a decline when compared to 2019, with value sales of Christmas novelty packs down by 19% (unit sales down by 26%), and assortments down by 0.7% (unit sales flat, compared to 2019).
However, shoppers still indulged over the festive period, with value sales of crisps and snacks up by 18%, and value sales of soft drinks up by 10%.
With Christmas Day falling on a Friday in 2020, compared to a Wednesday in 2019, most shoppers chose to carry out their main Christmas grocery shop in week 52 (week ending 27 December), while in 2019 Christmas sales were somewhat split between week 51 and week 52.
“Although Christmas Day 2020 fell outside of lockdown, rising COVID-19 cases no doubt led to reduced gatherings and many may have taken this opportunity to move away from traditional Christmas meals as value sales for turkey reduced by 9% for Christmas 2020 compared to 2019,” says Katie Varian of NielsenIQ.
“However, indulgence was still on the cards as confectionery sales performed strongly, with assortments increasing by 11% compared to a year ago.”
Online Grocery Shopping
Rounding out a strong year for online grocery, Irish households spent €133 million through digital channels over the past 12 weeks.
“The popularity of online grocery shopping is no flash in the pan, and digital orders accounted for 4.1% of all grocery sales in December,” said Healy.
“That figure was only 2.8% in December 2019, hammering home an impressive year in terms of sales and capacity growth. New shoppers continue to make the move online, and we expect digital sales to go from strength to strength in the year ahead.”
With the popularity of online shopping continuing to rise, it is important that grocery retailers stay ahead of the competition to ensure they fulfil their Christmas shoppers needs.
Speaking with Checkout, Eoin Clarke, managing editor Switcher.ie adds, “With online shopping still more popular than ever, people will expect to be able to get their Christmas shopping delivered to their doorstep at a time that suits them. The shops and outlets that can fulfil the demand for home delivery could be the Christmas winners this year.”
Supply Chain Fears
It would be remiss of me not to mention that as the UK emerges from COVID-19 lockdowns, a spike in European natural gas prices and a post-Brexit shortage of truck drivers has left the country grappling with soaring energy prices and a potential food supply crunch.
For months, supermarkets, processors and farmers have warned that a shortage of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers was straining supply chains to breaking point, making it harder to get goods on to shelves.
At the time of writing, it was widely reported that as UK ministers urged the public not to panic buy or stockpile, some of Britain's biggest supermarkets were warning that a shortage of truck drivers could lead to a shortage of certain products on shelves ahead of Christmas.
The impact that these factors will have on consumers and retailers during the all-important pre-Christmas shopping period remains to be seen.
Marks & Spencer Ireland Cancels Food To Order
However, on 19 October, Marks & Spencer Ireland announced that it would not be able to offer a pre-Christmas food to order service to its Irish customer base this year.
The retailer took to social media to make the following announcement, “Given the current challenges in the food industry, there was too much risk that we could potentially let customers down with key items in their orders ahead of the all- important day – we’d never want to do that.”
Speaking with Checkout, a spokesperson said, “Unfortunately, we are unable to offer our Christmas food to order to customers in Ireland due to the complex checks and delays resulting from Brexit, meaning there was too much risk that we could potentially let customers down.”
On 17 September, M&S announced that it is clear that Britons are ready to start the celebrations early this year.
Referring to the previous week, the retailer said there were 500,000 searches for ‘Christmas’ on the M&S website and M&S had already sold nearly 1,000 frozen turkeys as its UK shoppers start prepping for the festive season.
Looking ahead, festive household favourites will no doubt be in the spotlight again this years, as shoppers will be inclined to make a beeline for these items first, especially as family group celebrations will resume for Christmas 2021.
There are a number of items that have long become Irish household staples, and in many cases Christmas wouldn’t be the same without these items on the dinner table or under the tree.
Armed with this knowledge, clever retailers should cash in on this and should start presenting shoppers with special offers to discourage shoppers from going elsewhere for these festive essentials.
Feeling The Pinch
New figures from the Central Statistics Office (CSO), published on the 6 October, show that the country's unemployment rate, including people receiving temporary COVID-19 jobless benefits, fell to a new pandemic low of 10% in September, down from 12.4% in August.
This compares to the unemployment rate - including those getting the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) - which stood at 15.9% in September of last year.
Although these figures are showing a positive trajectory, some consumers might still be under a financial strain as they ease themselves back into the workplace.
“Consumers are really feeling the pinch this year with price rises left, right and centre, so they are going to be looking for bargains this Christmas,” says Eoin Clarke of Switcher.ie.
“The battle for Christmas among supermarkets will be fierce and if consumers can’t find the deals they want, they’ll likely head elsewhere. It will be important for all shops and supermarkets to be fully prepared to do battle with their competitors," he says.
"Due to such a disappointing Christmas for most last year, there will be pressure to make the day itself feel even more special and lavish this year. A good mix of deals on the food essentials and luxury items will help struggling families get the Christmas goods they need to cater for the large family gatherings they missed out on,” Clarke concludes.