Retailers and suppliers are planning Christmas while the sun is shining. How do they play to the right trends?

The annual harrumphing about how early Christmas products appear in the shops is still a few months away. But if the UK’s shopping Scrooges think Christmas comes too early for them, they might spare a thought for the nation’s fmcg workforce, for whom it “really is a year-round job”, according to Claire Hughes, Sainsbury’s director of product and innovation.

It’s a working pattern shared by Jamie Robinson, executive chef at Tesco. “Christmas never stops for us, whether we’re thinking about the current season or considering the next one,” he says.

Such commitment pays off for the supermarkets. The ‘golden quarter’ earned its name for a reason – and it’s becoming ever bigger business.

Last Christmas, supermarkets recorded their highest level of transactions since 2019. Brits made 488 million trips to the supermarkets [Kantar 4 w/e 24 December 2023] – 12 million more than the previous year and the largest number since pre-pandemic times. A record £13.7bn passed through the tills, driven by the average household spending an all-time high of £477 across the month. That was up by £28 on 2022. 

Unilever Mixed Range

Source: Unilever

Unilever recently unveiled some of its Christmas gifting ranges for 2024

“As we expected, last Christmas was a whopper. The traditional retailers always tend to do well in the run-up to Christmas and last year was no exception,” says Fraser McKevitt, Kantar’s head of retail and consumer insight. “Supermarkets saw especially strong performances for their own-label lines.”

McKevitt particularly points to sales of premium ranges like Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference and Tesco Finest, which surged by 11.9% on 2022 to hit £790m.

All this is the result of meticulous work that begins at least a year ahead – sometimes more – involving careful planning, shrewd forecasting and tight teamwork.

So, what happens when? Where do retailers and suppliers get their ideas for the abundance of Christmas NPD, branded and own label? And once all the background work is done, how do retailers decide what goes in when?

‘Two years in advance’

For Lizzie Haywood, innovations manager, product innovation & executive chef at Waitrose, the clock starts ticking well in advance.

“To put it into perspective, we’ve already undertaken our 2025 Christmas workshop – so around 20 months ahead of the big day!” she says. “From beginning to end, it tends to be around two years in advance. After the workshop has taken place, our product developers take the data to brief suppliers.”

That timeframe does depend on the category. While ambient and frozen lines tend to get briefed earlier, other categories won’t be briefed until after Christmas 2024, Haywood points out.

“People are always surprised to hear we’re tasting mince pies as early as July the previous year”

It results in a packed schedule. “We’re constantly working across multiple supplier submissions across the different categories so we’re very much ‘always on Christmas’,” Haywood sums up.

It’s a similar story at Sainsbury’s, where planning begins about 18 months in advance. The retailer will have several internal workstreams running concurrently, with “innovation being an important one of them”, Hughes says.

Her product and innovation team works particularly closely with the customer insight team to decode consumer mindsets and predict behaviours over the festive period. It’s then up to the supermarket’s product developers to work with suppliers on initial product ideas before trialling and tweaking to ensure the products can be scaled up to the required quantities.

“Our Food Centre is based in our Holborn office, and it’s always a hive of activity,” says Hughes. “Of course, taste testing is a very important part of the process – people are always surprised to hear we’re tasting mince pies as early as July the previous year.”

2023 Christmas NPD: the hits and misses

Tesco Finest Thermidor Rolls Kit

Decadent brunches

The Christmas brunch is now firmly established in UK households, and the mults made sure it was a suitably lavish occasion. Tesco offered a Finest Lobster & King Prawn Thermidor Rolls Kit, including poached prime lobster and a fennel pickle with dill, while Sainsbury’s brought its Taste the Difference Smoked Haddock Rarebit to the table.

Asda Cranberry & Camembert profiteroles 1

Savoury profiteroles

Sweet profiteroles have long been a Christmas dessert favourite. But last year, the spherical choux-stoppers received a savoury twist. Asda brought out its Extra Special Camembert & Cranberry Savoury Profiteroles for the festivities. Meanwhile, at Aldi, shoppers could go for a simple Barber’s mature cheddar filling or the same cheese infused with chorizo.

Waitrose Ultimate Festive Wellington

Vegan wellingtons

As a growing number of consumers embrace a plant-based Christmas, we’re seeing more and more wellingtons minus the cow. There was Abel & Cole’s Winter Vegetable Wellington with Cranberries, Morrisons’ Plant Revolution Vegetable Wellington, and Waitrose’s No 1 Ultimate Vegan Sharing Wellington, a mushroom duxelle with plant-based beef.

Tesco finest steamed duck and orange buns

Festive bao buns

Head to any street food market in the UK and it’s hard to move for bao buns. In 2023 the Asian-inspired delicacies crossed over to festive menus, too. Tesco introduced Finest Steamed Duck & Orange Buns and Steamed Mushroom Buns, Sainsbury’s created Taste the Difference Baos of Holly, and M&S offered up Snowmen Steamed Bao Buns.

Asda Brown Butter and Spiced Rum Mince Pies

Christmas turkey: mince pies with a twist

While many festive flavours flourished in 2023, Hamish Renton, managing director of fmcg consultancy HRA Global, took aim at the glut of new mince pie flavours: “Mince pies have become too over-engineered and pointlessly different – just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Leave them alone!”


Once the products are finalised, thoughts move on to engaging the relevant teams on packaging, PR, and marketing. Then the cycle begins again.

Tesco hammers home the constant nature of the work. “Christmas never stops – we roll from one year to another,” says Jasmin Moore, lead product development manager, trends, seasonal & future foods

A key – and particularly busy – moment for Tesco is its product showcase in September. The new lines   featured here play to what Moore terms “the festive fundamentals” – family, celebrating and hosting – as well as emerging trends. 

“Christmas is an ever-evolving occasion. Planning may start early, but our teams are agile. Every year they develop new products and incorporate trends into our offerings.”

As Moore suggests, evolving with the latest trends and flavours is vital. A new product that hits all the right notes can generate substantial PR – and spend – for big brands and retailers at Christmas.

M&S’s light-up gin liqueurs, for example, have become a flagship line since being introduced in Christmas 2019. Last Christmas, retro flavour black forest was a key trend to tap – finding its way into everything from yule logs at Waitrose to Hotel Chocolat

Then there is the battle to offer an on-trend alternative roast to the traditional turkey. At Aldi, its Specially Selected Crackling Gammon Joint proved a hit last year – with a 25% rise in sales.

At the same time, it’s important to keep stocking the  familiar classics, which can enjoy boosts of their own. Sainsbury’s reported its “best year ever” for mince pies in 2023, for example, with a 20% rise in sales.


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The key to all of these lines is taste, rather than health. “It’s the one time of year where thoughts about HFSS and ‘balanced diets’ seem to go right out the window, with the focus on indulgence, shelf appeal and sensory delights,” says Hamish Renton, managing director of fmcg consultancy HRA Global.

The key starting point to getting the right type of appeal and delight for the upcoming year, according to Waitrose’s Haywood, is knowing how customers are planning to shop during the festive period.

They might, for example, be planning to shop earlier to better manage their finances. They might be leaning towards cheaper options in the cost of living crisis – or saving on out-of-home spend to stage an indulgent blowout at home.

“All these bigger consumer trends play a huge part when it comes to preparing for Christmas as a supermarket,” she says. “Data is king when it comes to inspiration, and using technology we can monitor and check food and drink trends.”

Watirose uses the likes of Tastewise AI, Mintel and Kantar to “get a feel across the board of what customers are looking for when it comes to their Christmas shop”, Haywood explains.

“It’s imperative our innovation team gets out there to soak up all the culinary influences we can”

But retailers are also open to influences and inspiration from a variety of less traditional sources. “Where don’t we get our ideas would probably be more apt,” Haywood says. “Whether it’s seeing what’s cropping up on festive restaurant menus, what’s sold well in our shops the year before, what chefs are doing on their social channels, looking out for trending ingredients, flavours, or formats – anything that’s happening in the world of food, basically, from our competitors to food halls.

“We also travel further afield to get our inspiration, with trips around the year to London, Paris and Milan. It’s imperative our innovation team gets out there to soak up all the culinary influences we can,” she adds.

Tesco also takes an “always on” approach to food innovation, inspired by trade shows, cookbooks, chefs, and even fashion and design trends.

International travel features heavily, too. Moore cites a foodie fact-finding mission to New York last year as “a particular highlight”.

Even with all this research, there’s still room for gut feeling. “Although trends and insights guide early thinking, colleagues often apply their knowledge and expertise when making decisions, because they intrinsically know what works for our customers,” Moore says. “For Christmas 2023, Tesco introduced a Christmas Chef’s Collection, which saw our in-house chefs create restaurant-inspired dishes.”

Those dishes included a Tesco Finest Black Treacle Butter-Glazed Côte de Boeuf. “The collection produced outstanding innovation and new ideas, so it’s something we’re continuing in the future,” says Moore.

Over at Sainsbury’s, customer feedback and sales data play a key role, while their product developers, suppliers and in-house development chefs work closely to tap into wider consumer trends seen on social media, in restaurants and, again, through global travel.

“Last year, for example, we saw an appetite for traditional products but with a little twist, breathing new life into classic Christmas food. Our customers loved the Taste the Difference Spruced Up Sticky Toffee Pudding, which was a new take on the classic dessert with a salted caramel drizzle,” says Hughes.

Bring on the brands

All of these are examples of own-label lines, which make up the majority of Christmas NPD. However, the festive period is also a big opportunity for the UK’s biggest brands.

At Unilever, gifting is a strong focus. This side of the business is an “all-year-round event”, says Komal Patel, head of gifting & football UKI, EU and ANZ at Unilever.

“The big behind-the-scenes moment for gifting occurs in May when the repack operation begins, and we start to assemble all our gift sets to ensure our retailers have the stock they require in time for Christmas,” she explains.

Unilever works closely with its retail partners to create bespoke gift sets that can target their specific needs in terms of variants, formats and sizes, Patel adds.

“We’re also looking at consumer trends from a gifting point of view. For example, we know shoppers are looking for ease, and this year we’ve created a bespoke wrapping paper for each of our Lynx gift sets. The shopper simply needs to remove the outer sleeve on the box and it’s ready to pop under the Christmas tree or in a stocking.”

Coles Rich Chocolate and Chilli Pudding

Chilli-infused Christmas pudding

Food industry strategist Jane Milton expects chilli to appear in a range of desserts as the UK continues to garner “a greater understanding of heat and individual chilli flavours”. She earmarks Cole’s Rich Chocolate & Chilli Pudding, which will launch in November, as one that will appeal to “the younger, less traditional consumer”.

devilled eggs GettyImages-1278098161

Devilled eggs return

First it was prawn cocktail, then black forest, now some onlookers are predicting devilled eggs as the next retro dish ripe for reappraisal. Numerous restaurants are putting them on the menu along with ingredients such as smoked eel, caviar or crispy oysters and pickled chilli, so expect high-end supermarket takes to pop up soon.

Ancient grains GettyImages-615835094

Ancient grains ahoy

Ancient grains are elbowing their way into numerous independent bakeries and, by extension, public consciousness. With their relative lack of gluten and perceived health benefits, many food developers are expected to follow the trend this Christmas by incorporating the likes of millet, spelt and rye into stuffing mixes and prepared sides.

Pine cone GettyImages-155138895

Pining for pine

Could pine trees be about to make the leap from Christmas wreath to Christmas treat? Top chefs are beginning to celebrate the forager’s favourite by blitzing the needles to a powder for baking or adding them to various infusions. Retailers may well be tempted to bring their citrussy flavour to festive liqueurs and cakes this Christmas.


More branded Christmas jumpers

Unilever’s range of Christmas jumpers was a big hit in 2023. Offered in Pot Noodle (green), Colman’s (yellow) and Marmite (black and red) varieties last year, this time out Unilever has confirmed that a Lynx Christmas jumper is in the offing to provide “brand loyalists” with “another way to celebrate Christmas with Lynx”.

Chocolate giant Cadbury, meanwhile, has an incredibly long lead time when it comes to working out treats for the big day.

Emma Jayne Paxton, senior brand manager (Christmas and Halloween) at Mondelez International, reveals the company works two, three, or sometimes even five years in advance for important projects.

The return of Cadbury Coins last year, for example, was five years in the making. The factory is also producing Cadbury Heroes and Roses tubs all year round to meet Christmas demand.

“It’s crazy, but I love it,” Paxton says. “The reality is, we’re planning so far in advance that it really is Christmas all year round for the team. Even in April, I’d be wearing my Cadbury Christmas jumper in meetings about our plans.”

It’s a similar story at Fox’s Burton’s Companies (FBC) UK, makers of Fox’s Biscuits. It begins making biscuits for Christmas in January, reports on festive performance to customers in early February and starts “laying plans with them to help get the right stock for their shoppers next Christmas”, according to trade marketing director Colin Taylor.

The latter is no easy feat. “We ideally don’t want to block up stores with stock in September, have anything left over after Christmas Day, or – worst of all – see stores run out of stock before Christmas Eve,” he adds.

That brings us to the ever-divisive question of when these Christmas products go into store. Retailers are hyper-aware of the consumer desire to begin stocking up for Christmas early – particularly as a means of spreading costs in the current economic climate.

So despite the inevitable grumbling on social media, many retailers will go early. At Tesco and Waitrose, the first festive products hit the shelves in September. At Sainsbury’s, longer-life and ambient products such as mince pies become available in October. Christmas sandwiches come along around the same time at Tesco.

Next comes party food, which arrives into Sainsbury’s stores in November. Then it’s time for the main event, which spans the full host of fresh items – from fresh cauliflower cheese to ‘showstopper desserts’ and the heavy hitters for the big festive roast.

For retailers, it’s a culmination of months of painstaking work. “Christmas is such an exciting time for us and there’s a real buzz across the entire business,” says Tesco chef Robinson.

“Behind the scenes, all our colleagues work holistically to make this happen. If we worked in silos, we might think a huge change has been made for customers, but they might not feel it. Working together and aligning all areas of the business helps us ladder up our offering to create something great.”

It’s a point that could apply to any fmcg operation that takes Christmas seriously. Because a task this mammoth requires strong collaboration as much as strong innovation.