It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas; Jessica Hanson asks the retailers how they’re preparing for the festive season and what they’re expecting from an unpredictable market.
A glance at the papers and news sites in the lead up to December shows that, as usual, big companies and research bodies are sending in their pre-Christmas predictions in a bid to make us all panic, or grumble, or relax – depending on whose statistics you believe. Research from Greene King said that 60 per cent of the UK will have Christmas shopping under way before the start of December, and that 60 per cent have no plans to cut their spending this year. Then American Express says 64 per cent of Britons are planning a cost-conscious approach, but if you’re more inclined to believe the Guardian, “retailers will be looking forward to a bumper Christmas.” Shopping channel QVC reckons that 41 per cent of shoppers will be buying early to get bargains, and VoucherCodes.co.uk says 71 per cent of households plan to shop mainly online this Christmas.
So, in truth, the predictions are – predictably – inconsistent. Instead, we went straight to the retailers to ask what they’re expecting in the run up to Christmas and how they’re planning to make the most of it. Naturally, due to publication schedules, I was asking these questions in October, and mostly got an initial response similar to the entire nation’s exasperation when we see the first tinsel and Santa hats in the supermarket. But it did seem that Christmas buying trends have been evolving over recent years, and not necessarily uniformly across the trade.
“It’s definitely too early for that,” said Robert Gardner of Monarch Country Products. “The last few years it’s got later and later – sometimes we don’t see anything until the beginning of December, because of internet sales and quick deliveries these days. We are definitely finding it’s kicking in later and later every year, right up to a few days before Christmas. It’s really noticeable.”
Chris Potter of Chris Potter Country Sports also said that Christmas shoppers weren’t hugely apparent as of the end of October, but that the company was preparing accordingly: “The game shooting season has started, so business has picked up because of that, but I haven’t seen Christmas shoppers yet. We’re starting to buy a few Christmas-type gifts and items, ready for Christmas, but I would expect it to start in the next few weeks.”
Conversely, Alan at Bagnall & Kirkwood said buyers are starting early: “We’ve had one or two people in already. Actually, two months ago we had some people in! But the main rush doesn’t really start until about 7-10 December.”
Jason Harris of Trulock & Harris said, “There’s more ladies in the shop, so I would think we have seen some Christmas business. What are normally good products for Christmas are good quality gunslips. We tend to sell Croots more than anything and sometimes the leather stuff with initials on – that sort of thing is often good at Christmas; a bit of clothing, accessories, bits and pieces, and we’ve now got some the Argentinian polo belts. You can tell some of those are going as Christmas presents. But it’s always difficult to know what you’ve done until you’ve done it! The season is definitely here, our shop is definitely busier. We’d be worried if it wasn’t really, we’re a business for this half of the year – generally August until January is the busiest time, if there is one.”
When asked what kind of products they’re pushing for the Christmas markets, many of the same answers came up: gunslips, cartridge bags, hipflasks, socks – in short, stocking-fillers, as well as more extravagant gifts ranging up to several hundred pounds. “It could be a simple thing like a hip flask at £20, or it could be a coat for £350,” said Andy at Melbourne Guns.
“Gun covers are always popular, clothing – so socks and gloves, so stocking fillers, stuff like that – as well as major presents,” said Alan of Bagnall & Kirkwood. “With stocking fillers it’s normally £20, so we sell things like thermos flasks, socks, things like that. But it could be any price point, anything up to £200 or £300.”
“We see our orders pick up for SealSkinz gloves,” said Robert. “At the higher price point, there’s things like roe sacks and sika sacks, things over £100. A lot of people need them, but they might put them off and think, ‘I’ll ask mum or dad – or the wife – to get one for Christmas.’”
“Often when people leave the shop I say, ‘Have you got a cartridge bag?’ And they say ‘No, no, I can’t afford it.’ So I say ‘Well, put it on your Christmas list,’” said Chris Potter. “There’s no build as yet, but I’d expect it to come in the next few weeks, so we’ve bought in gifts ready for when it does start. It’s stuff that you wouldn’t normally stock during the year, hip flasks, mugs, general items that we buy in just for Christmas – things for people who are looking for something for the shooting man.
“And we’ve been selling a few more vouchers these last few years. That solves a lot of problems, because the person hasn’t got to make a choice, and you don’t get: ‘Oh, he’s already got a cartridge bag, can I change it?’”
So what about the high street retail predictions of increased online shopping? It makes sense, in a way – why face the crushing crowds in the shopping centres and high streets when you could stay in the warmth indoors and have presents delivered to your doorstep instead? But does that trend translate to the shooting trade around Christmas time too?
“We have not got a shop front, we are an internet business,” said Robert from Monarch Country Products, which Robert explained, is partially why Christmas customers come late in the year to his business – there’s no need to plan ahead if successful gift-buying takes only a few minutes online and a few days’ delivery. “We obviously always see a spike towards the end of the year,” he continued. “And the year to date, our sales are ahead of last year. We are a growing business, we’re taking some business from some of our larger competitors. People like what we have to offer and we have a very targeted market.”
Alan from Bagnall & Kirkwood also reported that internet sales are increasing: “It’s mainly things things like wellies, they’re very popular at Christmas. A lot of the things that we sell in the shop are gun-related – people like to come in and see them, and obviously you’ve got to because of the Act. Wellingtons and jumpers and things like that are mostly on the internet.”
Andy from Swillington Shooting Supplies agreed that Christmas shopping is moving online, saying: “The internet side takes care of most of that now, leading up to Christmas. The shop’s busy as well, but it’s not so much guns and things as little knick-knacks, and cartridge belts and bags.”
But while internet shopping is proving lucrative for these retailers, it remains the bane of others.
“The biggest bugbear for us is the retailers on the internet. We had somebody yesterday, we’d ordered a coat in for them, and then they proudly told us that they’d found one cheaper on the internet. They almost like to rub your nose in it; unfortunately we get that now and again. Because we have quite a good clothing selection, I’m pretty sure we get people coming to try stuff on and then go and order it on the internet,” said Jason Harris.
“I can see us losing clothing sales in the shop – people come in, try the coat on, get the size, get the colour, then they go off online to see where they can save pennies,” said Chris Potter. “There’s a lot more of that going on then there ever used to be. ‘Oh, I’ll be back next week.’ You’re not coming back, we know exactly what you’re doing. And of course, these internet shops don’t have the overheads we have, so they can afford to give discounts and do better deals. Half the time they’re not carrying any stock – they just call the wholesaler up when they get the order and send it on then.”
So it seems that if we’re to take any part of the high street’s Christmas forecast seriously, it should be that customers are increasingly opting for laid-back shopping from the sofa as opposed to in-store sales. As for the other predictions – we’ll have to wait until the final results are in next year.