Pubs should see the festive period as a chance to change people's habits. We take a look at how you can make the most of Christmas.
Something odd yet rather beautiful comes over people at Christmas. The first whiff of pine needles and roasting chestnuts loosens purse-strings and opens wallets like flowers in the sunshine. Folk who have been careful with their money all year long suddenly feel it's time to splash the cash.
The spirit of free-spending combined with an urge for sociability makes Christmas the most important time of the year for publicans. Yet Christmas, so to speak, is not just for Christmas.
If you really want to make the most of the festive season you have to see it as an opportunity to change people's habits. You are not only selling food and drink, you are selling pubs.
Recent years have seen people getting out of the habit of going to the pub. The only way to reverse that shift is to prove to them that the pub can provide an experience they couldn't possibly recreate at home. And if you can't do that at Christmas, when else can you do it?
Success at Christmas depends above all on attention to detail, keeping a sharp focus on retailing techniques and customer service. Not so easy when, as you hope, the bar is rammed, but all the more important when you've got your biggest audience in front of you.
Interbrew breaks it down into three important factors: product quality, display and what it calls "power brands".
"Christmas is a huge opportunity for the on-trade because there is such a dramatic increase in social occasions that revolve around the pub," says Colin Pedrick, managing director for on-trade sales.
"The on-trade was overshadowed by the performance of the take-home market during the summer and the business increase was not as big as it should have been. The indications are that people had their mid-week social occasions at home rather than going to the pub.
"Christmas must be the time when the industry works together to get people back into the pub. The challenge this Christmas is for licensees to deliver on key issues such as product quality to ensure consumers have a memorable pub visit," says Colin.
"Publicans have to think about their potential market and consider the drinking occasions they are serving and then focus on the brands that are relevant to such occasions.
"It is about understanding the local marketplace and taking active steps to attract people by targeting local businesses and understanding the nature of the drinking occasions the pub is catering for."
Interbrew has taken a lead on product quality for the last couple of years, but Colin insists that it's even more important at Christmas.
"It is the time of year when a large number of occasional pub-goers come into the market and it is really important that their experience of the pub is good - a quality experience may encourage more of these occasional visitors to use the pub more often."
The problem is that, if you're really busy, quality - both in terms of the product and customer service - can easily be allowed to slip at the worst possible time.
"The quality message must be ingrained within the industry and must remain in place even at busy times rather than making it the first thing that gets dropped," said Colin.
"The danger is that quality can be overlooked because of the hectic nature of the season but the fact is that even if a pub is really busy it doesn't take much longer to serve a 'perfect' pint."
Interbrew's research shows that consumers "buy what they see" when in the pub, and that presumably applies even more to those inexperienced pub-goers you can expect to see gawping awkwardly at your bar come the last weeks of December. What you display well is what is most likely to be ordered so, as Colin points out, "it is all about using display to draw attention towards more profitable brands".
While these fundamentals of category management are things that all your suppliers will agree on, it is, predictably, in the choice of brands you should focus on that their advice will differ. Your job is to hear what they have to say and make up your mind strictly according to your knowledge of the customers you expect to attract. That's where you are your own expert.
Colin Pedrick naturally recommends Stella Artois. "For most festive occasions, licensees should focus on big power brands because people who are not regular pub-goers will look for brand names they know and trust. Retailers must put display focus on these brands."
Simon Treanor, director of on-trade sales at Holsten UK, agrees with the general thrust of this argument but believes there is also scope to broaden the range at Christmas time.
"A wide range of trusted and respected brands is essential," he says. "Consumers who only visit a pub once a year will be seeking out credible brands with which they are familiar.
"People who are loyal to a specific brand at home, Holsten Pils for example, find it a natural bar call in the on-trade while consumers who only drink own-label at home will also look for high profile, respected brands."
There is, however, also a tendency for people to experiment at Christmas or to give themselves a treat. This, Simon argues, opens up opportunities within, for instance, the speciality beers sector.
"There is huge growth in those brands leveraging the beer-with-food association," he says. "Consumers have a thirst for knowledge on taste, age, origin and brewing heritage, making the whole speciality beer category one in which they are keen to experiment.
"Licensees should be prepared to offer a varied range that encourages people to explore and discover."
That strange limbo between Christmas and New Year is an opportunity that pubs might miss out on as they prepare for the big one on December 31.
Yet Interbrew's Colin Pedrick believes it is a time licensees cannot afford to ignore.
"People are absolutely bursting to get out of their homes after being stuck in the house over Christmas," he said - but licensees need to get the nature of the occasion clear in their minds.
"Pre-Christmas, the pub occasion is very much about celebration as people meet up for a drink," he explained. "The post-Christmas occasion tends to be more family-oriented or an opportunity for people to get out to see friends.
"As such, it is a time for relaxation and taking things a bit easier and you should create marketing activity that is appropriate to the nature of the occasion.
"City centre outlets can also gear up for when the New Year sales start on Boxing Day through catering for the needs of shoppers."
Champagne moments may not be quite as rare as you think. Research by champagne house Carnard-Duchene, which currently claims to be the UK's fastest growing brand, confirms that British people will use almost any excuse to pop open a bottle - Christmas being as good a time as any.
According to brand manager Simon Gotelee, we are unique in this. "Across Europe champagne is centred on family and formal occasions," he said. "In the UK it is looked on as a licence to enjoy yourself, the way to kick off an evening. It is informal and spontaneous, there is no rigid code about when and how to drink it."
Because of that, Simon believes that pubs should be making more of champagne this Christmas. Carnard-Duchene is already going well in the Pitcher & Piano and Slug & Lettuce chains and any top-end or food-led outlet could be missing out if they don't offer champers.
Christmas is a good time to give it a try because you can expect the kind of throughput you need to serve it by the glass. You will need to display it well because customers may not expect to see champagne in a pub, and you must serve it properly, in chilled glasses.