Still “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” For High Street Retailers?


Published 12th December 2019

The run up to has Christmas traditionally been the busiest time for retailers. Despite the overall slowdown in recent years, Christmas spending in the UK still showed an increase from 2017-2018, albeit a small upward trend of 1.4% for online and offline sales combined, according to figures from the Centre for Retail Research (CRR).

However, the period which had become known as the “Gold Quarter”, when high street retailers hope to make the most sales of the year, has gradually become tainted by online options as well as political unrest, most recently the ongoing uncertainty caused by Brexit. Even with the “B word” aside, online Christmas shopping is rising at a greater pace than for high street stores.

So with dropping temperatures outside, tightening of belts, total transparency of pricing and voucher codes aplenty online, how can retailers keep footfall in-store?

The good news for store managers is that 68.5% of Christmas purchases are still made in the real world (CRR figure). And it’s not wise to ignore the impact and potential of online sales. Both channels should be seen as complementary to each other and retailers need to be on top of their game in both the online and physical world in order to compete. Successful retailers will also recognise the importance of engaging with mobile phone shoppers, as well as creating ripples of interest on social media to drive traffic to websites and stores alike.

The answer for the high street may well be in looking beyond promotions and costs. Black Friday has been damaging for many retailers. Some of those who have taken part in dropping prices to rock bottom have then seen profits fall as well. There are some major retailers that no longer participate in this pre-Christmas “event”, including Asda, Ikea, Homebase and M&S. The CRR refers to “discount fatigue”, with such omnipresence of price cutting causing consumers to lose interest altogether.

Whilst cost is still high up the priority list, whether on- or offline, retail outlets are able to offer shoppers a level of personalised customer service and real engagement that is difficult to match online. Listening to what customers are looking for and being in a position to react immediately is key.

Although non-food retailers have seen a dip in Christmas profits over recent years, food retailers have been less affected and for stores such as Morrison’s, the story has been positive with a rise in sales. Speaking to Marketing Week, Morrison’s CFO Martin Strain shared his advice: “improved availability, reducing gaps in our offering, and listening to consumers”. He added, “…choice, availability, price, service, offers and environments… there is plenty to go at in retail when you approach the business that way.”

Taking on board customer comments and acting on them is priceless. Face to face engagement will always offer unique opportunities to understand your target market in a way that can be so much more valuable than customer surveys sent via email or expensive consultancy research. Making sure you recruit and retain the right staff to do this is critical.

The environment you hope for your customers to walk into and enjoy is also key. What better time of year than Christmas to do something really special to ensure that your store conveys your brand and all that you are about? John Lewis MD Paula Nickolds believes that, “retailers need to offer great products at fantastic value and provide service and experience that customers enjoy”.

People matter most. Bringing together the best you can offer in terms of store displays, the right products for your target customers, the right pricing, and a team of in-store and “behind the scenes” staff will all contribute towards success at any time of the year.

Employee engagement and customer care are not just for Christmas. Once the scent of festive spice has drifted away and the last baubles have been packed up, focusing on excellent customer experience is something that needs to be sustained well into the New Year and beyond.

By Lorna Dunn, Director

Pure Communications Cambridge Limited