The Christmas countdown is under way and licensees should be preparingto make sure their pub has that festive spirit. Phil Mellows reports
At the end of a year of foot-and-mouth, a waning consumer confidence dampened still further by the terrorist attacks on the United States followed by war and now floods again, publicans must be looking forward to Christmas more than ever.
Even in bad times - perhaps especially in bad times - people will make an effort for Christmas and the New Year, and with the dark weeks of January and February to get through it is essential that licensees make the most of the opportunity.
Interbrew UK, which incorporates the Whitbread Beer Company and Bass Brewers, is urging its customers to target three specific sales opportunities:
- eating out
- big night out drinking occasions
- big brands.
The theory is that Christmas sees an increase in what the company calls "specific drinking occasions" and, with many people making their once-a-year trip to the pub, major brands will be the ones in demand.
"We have been emphasising for some time that targeting the drinking occasion is the key for retailers and this is particularly true at Christmas," said on-trade sales director Allan Tudor.
"Our research indicates there will be a marked increase in eating out and big night out drinking and pubs that serve these types of occasions will benefit from the biggest uplift in business.
"For many families, this is the one time of year they are together so they tend to go out to mark the occasion," Allan continued. "This most often means eating out, but the food occasion is also a drinks occasion.
"At the moment, wine takes precedence over beer when it comes to eating out but beer better suits the casual, informal occasion of eating out as a group."
Interbrew is working with licensees on a number of initiatives designed to put greater focus on beer and has introduced a new litre bottle of Stella Artois designed for shared eating out occasions.
The company adds that it makes commercial sense to put the display focus on the big brands which traditionally benefit more than others from the Christmas rush.
For example, Stella increased on-trade volumes in December 2000 by 10 per cent over the millennium year.
"Big brands benefit at Christmas because a large number of people who are not regular drinkers enter the market," explained Allan.
"They will be looking for brands they know and trust and it is important to reflect this by ensuring they are given a high profile."
For rival brewer Carlsberg-Tetley, success at Christmas also depends on good planning.
"It seems that people start celebrating a little later every year, but the Christmas spirit always leads people to the pub or club in the end," it said.
"The most important thing for any licensee is to make sure you have enough stock in the cellar.
"During the Christmas period Carlsberg-Tetley, in common with other suppliers, changes its usual order and delivery schedules to maintain customer service levels. If you are in any doubt about when your deliveries will be arriving, speak to telesales.
"In the week before Christmas the last thing you want to worry about is arranging an emergency delivery. So have a look at your records from last year and get your order in early.
"Remember to watch out for those products that people might drink more of when they are in a party mood - a few extra cases of a premium lager might be a good thing to add to your order.
"This is also a good time to promote those brands that make you a good margin."
As the rest of this report makes clear, it's not just alcohol and food that get a seasonal boost.
Publicans should also pay attention to what they might regard as their more marginal products, such as soft drinks, snacks and cigars.
As Britvic's Sue Garfitt points out, soft drinks now "play an important part in the overall experience of going to the pub" - an experience that is heightened over the festive period.
"It is vital that licensees understand the importance of soft drinks in their customers' lives in order to grow their slice of profit this Christmas."
As experienced licensee Ken Powells points out, "publicans should really know their customers".
"That way you can build a pub around what they need, at any time of year," he said.
Here's some advice from two experienced Inn Partnership franchisees on how to make the most of Christmas.
Norman Waterhouse runs the Old Royal Oak pub and restaurant, an upmarket pub in the Leicestershire village of Bitteswell. Refurbished a couple of years ago the pub has two bars and a "country house" feel about it, providing quality food as well as serving as the local pub.
"It is wise to have a wider choice of options on the food menu than you normally would during the year," said Norman. "People want something different at Christmas, far more than the traditional Christmas menu - in fact only half our customers order the turkey spread.
"We offer a wide alternative with salmon, sea bass and other meats supplementing the menu. Christmas is a chance for customers to have a party and a nice meal out, so expand your menu, don't condense it!
"Be prepared when it comes to staff, too, to ensure customers are kept happy at this busy time of year.
Recruiting students works well for both parties as the publican needs short-term staff and the student needs a job for only a few weeks while on Christmas holidays."
Ken Powells has run the Black Dog near Dorchester, Dorset, for five years and has been in the trade for around 25.
His family-oriented pub serves as both the village local and as a family restaurant, specialising in good food and value-for-money.
"Christmas is a great excuse to pull in new customers," he said. "Often the customers will return again and again, so the focus must be on making sure the food, drink and prices are absolutely right. The impression you make at Christmas can stand you in good stead for the rest of the year."
In contrast to Norman, Ken believes focusing on a small range of food options based on traditional menus allows you to make sure you get things right.
"I strongly advise against cutting corners and you should ignore the temptation to go over the top. Concentrate on keeping things simple - and top quality."
More information and advice for the countdown to Christmas
Alcoholic Drinks - A look at what some of the drinks companies are doing to promote their brands
Soft drinks and tobacco - Innovations and advice on the profit opportunities from soft drinks and cigars
Wine - How publicans can benefit from stocking the right wines this Christmas