Stephen Jardine: Xmas is when the big guns choose to do battle

Just one week to go. Next Saturday everyone will be knee-deep in final preparations for the great day ahead '“ but before that there is the small matter of the biggest shopping week of the year.

Waitrose's  Christmas advert  features an epic tale of a robin's homecoming to a UK garden and a crumb of mince pie. Picture PA
Waitrose's Christmas advert features an epic tale of a robin's homecoming to a UK garden and a crumb of mince pie. Picture PA

Last year consumers spent as estimated £6.4 billion in supermarkets in the fortnight running up to Christmas. The majority of people leave the big shop to the final seven days.

For the major retailers, next week represents their biggest logistical challenge of the year. Most planned their 2016 festive food range 12 months ago and unveiled it in the summer, but after all the build-up, what ­matters now is getting it to the public.

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2016 was another tough year for the major supermarkets. The big four all suffered continuing sales declines while, in contrast, discounters Aldi and Lidl enjoyed double-digit growth.

This pattern of decline in the traditional supermarkets and aggressive growth from the new players is now well established, but Christmas is not only the biggest shopping period of the year, it is also a chance to shake things up.

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Traditionally this is when consumers are prepared to trade up and spend more as they entertain friends and family. That offers the mainstream supermarkets an opportunity to ­distance themselves from the discounters.

Part of that comes with the huge, blockbuster TV advertising campaigns. Supermarkets have moved away from their year-round price battle ads. Instead they now concentrate on hammering home at Christmas their unique selling point to consumers.

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The Sainsbury’s Christmas campaign last year was seen by 25 million people online on top of all those of watched it on TV. It’s estimated Sainsbury’s made a profit of £24 on every £1 spent on advertising at Christmas.

With consumers prepared to pay a little bit more at Christmas, the supermarkets don’t want to become involved in a price war right now. You won’t see adverts competing over the price of a turkey. What you will see are “hero products” designed to take advantage of those willing to splash the cash over the next week.

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These luxury items are often only available over the next seven days but they are specifically designed to stretch spending as far as it will go by offering something decadent and extravagant.

Waitrose leads the way on this with Heston Blumenthal creating showstopper Christmas creations ranging from an ultimate chocolate truffle cake to Persian spiced Christmas pudding. Neither come cheap but both will deliver plenty of “wow” factor.

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With its £80 four-bird roast followed by a shimmering gold melt-in-the-middle pudding, Marks & Spencer is not far behind when it comes to big ticket festive tastes. Sainsburys is also in the game with their Belgian Chocolate and Raspberry baubles, and even Asda has seafood shots and lobster rolls as exotic starters on their Christmas menu.

None of these products will to stop the slide from the big multiples to the more nimble discounters, but they are a means of creating excitement and drawing shoppers back at a time of the year when the usual rules about shopping and spending go out the window.

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The supermarkets will hope at least some of those consumers will rediscover their brand and return at other times of the year.

Millions have being spent on advertising to bring all these products to our attention, but even that pales into insignificance beside the Christmas marketing success story of this and every year: the humble sprout.

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Just a fortnight ago, headlines warned a moth invasion threatened to wipe out more than half of the sprout harvest, throwing our traditional Christmas dinner into chaos. Then I looked back.

In 2009, there were fears snow would destroy the harvest and in 2014, it was rain. More or less every year we are told there won’t be enough sprouts to go round so we panic buy early – then discover we have more than we need or could possibly want. That’s the magic of Christmas.