On song for the festive peak
Most retailers will be chomping at the bit to get Christmas officially under way. All the big decisions - such as stock, staffing and promotions - will have been made and stock will have already started to filter onto shelves.
But operational changes are necessary throughout the Christmas trading period, so where exactly should your business be right now? Retailers have been drip feeding in product since the beginning of September to allow shoppers the chance to start previewing it.
Many retailers do two launches - a soft launch of product and a second with supporting point of sale, window displays and decorations. October half term is a popular choice for the first wave of activity. Marks & Spencer will soft launch its Christmas shop at this time and go into what it terms full Christmas mode from the first week of November. John Lewis will have most of its Christmas product range out from the beginning of October, but will also phase the decorations launch to complete by the beginning of November.
Meanwhile, Boots’ large stores already launched Christmas in early September and smaller stores were expecting their ranges by the end of that month. “We do that as a phased approach because our customers in the larger stores have a different expectation to our smaller stores and expect to see ranges earlier,” says Boots UK head of trading operations Michael Stredder.
He adds: “We will put stock out and then add to the enhancements as time goes on. It is a rolling programme that varies by store size and type.”
Selfridges’ full launch will be the end of October, with a Christmas grotto launching on November 21. Operational and space planning is especially crucial at this time, according to Selfridges retail operations director Sue West.
The retailer not only has to find space for its Christmas ranges but for the events that are going on in-store and the grotto - which itself takes six weeks to build. “There is a lot of physical moving around behind the scenes and then it’s about getting the teams ready from a service side,” says West.
“The space has to come from somewhere so there has to be some condensing and rationalising of stock,” says Envision Retail managing director Jason Kemp. Many stores make layout tweaks as soon as summer is over.
John Lewis director of selling operations David Barford says space is flexed from September until mid-October. After then, changes are done on a strategic basis to take account of what products are selling in-store.
With retailers working harder to win customer spend this year there is a real operational focus on improving processes to free up staff in-store.
“We are looking at how we can become more efficient with our systems in-store so that we can put as many people as possible in front of the customer at the key times when they want to shop,” says Stredder.
Will Treasure, operations director at retail and ecommerce consultancy Javelin Group, says retailers should focus on the basics. “It’s useful to run refreshers on store disciplines prior to the peak trading period- running through the basic store standards such as merchandising, cleanliness and customer service,” he says.
West says that at Selfridges, one of the most important tasks is bringing the whole operation together. “We have 3,000 people working at Christmas and the key is how we get them all involved. Communication is a real challenge.”
Barford agrees: “We spend a lot of time communicating to the partners what Christmas looks like so they have a clear vision of what we’re trying to achieve.”
Boots holds a national Christmas conference at the beginning of October to prepare staff for the season. So does House of Fraser. “All our store management teams have been to our central store support centre for a Christmas engagement day, which enables the teams to review the key Christmas lines and discuss the operational strategy,” says Richard Wayment, executive director of retail operations for the west of England at House of Fraser. “This information is now being cascaded to all store teams across the country. We have further improved our communication to the teams in-store with a comprehensive Christmas manual that communicates the key operational and product messages,” he says.
For Barford the biggest operational challenge is ensuring the product looks its best at all times. That means a focus on replenishment is vital. “No matter what happens in-store you have got to make the product look fresh and compelling every day,” he says.
“Product displays have to be inspiring and compelling and that’s reviewed daily,” adds Barford. “It’s also about communicating our value message so that customers understand the value of the products and an obsessive focus on customer service at all touchpoints.”
It’s not necessarily doing anything differently but just aiming to be more consistent. “You can buy products in very different places so it’s about how inspired you are and that’s where the shopkeeping aspect comes in,” he says.
“The customer will choose very carefully where to spend their money,” adds Stredder. “Looking after the customer this year will be the key to success.”
Retailers also need to ensure all their channels are working together. “More people will also be researching online before purchase. We expect multichannel reserve-and-collect type services to be popular,” says Currys head of marketing Amanda Clift.
Currys head office staff are also going back to the shopfloor. “This not only supports stores at the busiest time of year, but also leaves office staff with a better understanding of operational challenges and naturally brings the teams closer together,” says Clift.
With all the focus and excitement surrounding Christmas products it can be easy to forget the rest of the store. “Part of my role is about reminding staff it’s not just about Christmas but that our core business is very important too,” says Stredder.
And of course alongside retailers’ Christmas operational planning, detailed planning should already be under way for their Sales period - whether that comes before or after Christmas Day itself this year.
Kemp says: “You have to phase out of Christmas into Sale in one seamless manoeuvre so you have to start planning for that - such as having a dedicated returns till and work out how you are going to de-feature Christmas and manage the volume of returns,” he says. Operational planning for Christmas is vital but the basics aren’t that different to the rest of the year. The ingredients for a successful Christmas in retail are the same, but are magnified because it is such a key trading period.
“Retailers need to ensure that their stores look great every day and that well-trained, efficient staff are in place, buzzing with the challenge of delivering great service to customers at the extended times that they want to shop. It’s also important to have a slick and responsive stock replenishment system with great communication between the stores, the buying and merchandise teams, and every support function in the business,” says Wayment.
Remember to keep an eye on those basics and hopefully Christmas will be a time of good retail cheer.
Store operations festive timeline
- Products begin arriving into the store stockroom
- Products begin to drip feed onto the shopfloor and space is flexed
- Ensure additional equipment, wrapping materials, etc, have been ordered
- Soft launches of Christmas shops begin
- General launches of gift guides
- Full Christmas launches supported by full decorations and point of sale take place
- Temporary Christmas staff begin work
- Ensure continual focus on service, replenishment and selling
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