Every year there are stories about Christmas starting early: the mince pies for sale in September; the festive merchandising that starts before Halloween is even done; the Christmas jingles that play interminably for weeks and weeks. It’s enough to bring out the ’bah humbug’ in all of us.
But this year there’s no denying it. Not only is the John Lewis ad (another breathy cover track) a week early. Not only has there been a rush for online grocery slots like never before. The proof is in the pudding: the Christmas pudding to be precise, with 1.6 million bought in October, according to Kantar in an update accompanying its latest market share data out today.
It’s a festive bonanza out there. An extra seven million households bought mince pies in October. And in the past four weeks, an extra £6.1m has been spent on frozen poultry – an increase of 27% year on year. All with 45 shopping days to go until the big event.
This is not irrational exuberance however. There is a clear logic to the public mood after last year’s Covid-crushed festivities. “It’s rational,” says Fraser McKevitt, head of retail and consumer insight at Kantar. “If you’ve recently experienced fuel shortages, and didn’t get to meet the family last year, why would you take the risk?”
The HGV driver shortages, and resulting supply problems, have only exacerbated the situation. A Yahoo survey found nearly half of consumers are concerned about potential shortages this Christmas. And a Barclaycard survey found over a third are so concerned they are changing their approach to Christmas shopping as a result.
It could be the end of some established traditions. The 23 December – typically the big day for some last-minute stocking up – may not be such a large affair. “I do wonder if people will spread out their shopping a bit more, having experienced empty shelves,” suggests McKevitt. If they haven’t already.
Other habits will gain ground. Online grocery has come down from its peak to hover at around 12% market share. Yet this is still significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels of 8%. So, similarly to last year, supermarkets will face a challenge in serving everyone. “There’s always a lot of demand for slots and I think that capacity constraint is going to be important,” McKevitt says.
Ultimately, the early preparations for Christmas are no bad thing. It signals that consumers are keen to make the most of this year’s event – which is good news for grocery. And whether it’s a subconscious response to industry warnings about supply chain vulnerability, or conscious advice from supermarket CEOs to plan early almost doesn’t matter. The crucial thing is it will smoothe out the demand curve.
“The consensus is Christmas is going to be strong this year because they didn’t get to celebrate properly last year,” says McKevitt. “The great unknown is how big pubs and restaurants will be, but I have to say I don’t think they will be back to the levels of before the pandemic. So I imagine supermarkets will retain a fair bit of sales.”
So hold off on that ‘bah humbug’ reflex for now. And be thankful you’re in grocery.