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Planning Christmas in June may feel incongruous, but it’s the best time for retailers to put together all the pieces that make a winning holiday sales season. Starting now will pay off at the register in December.

Follow these important steps to organize your 2017 Christmas season and carry a healthy profit into 2018.

1. Merchandise Festively

Taking the time to create Christmas displays may seem daunting, but the effort benefits the bottom line. According to VP of Product Merchandising Michelle Amster, “most stores miss this opportunity because they say they don’t have the time to merchandise. If stores don’t have the time or the talent to do the displays themselves, they should bring somebody in to help them. This could be anybody from a professional to a friend that just has an eye for decorating. A storeowner could even plan an evening with her friends, make them dinner, and get it all done in an evening.”

To create appealing holiday displays, it pays to learn what not to do. Amster sees two major mistakes to avoid.

“The first is nonmerchandising. This is where you just see a sea of products with no particular plan or purpose. If customers have to roam the whole gift area to find all the items for, say, a sister, they may decide to leave and shop in their slippers when they get home,” she warns. “This doesn’t mean that you cannot have sister items in other areas in a cross-merchandising display, but everything needs to be together somewhere.

“The second thing I see is rare, but when it happens, it is a disaster,” she continues. “If your display is too perfect or seems to be precarious for shoppers to touch, they will not touch it. You have to make sure that each item is easy to remove from the display or have baskets or stacks of the items near the display so that shopping is easy.”

Some stores bring in lots of Christmas ornaments, textiles, hostess gifts, and more; others buy sparingly. With either approach, Sherry Morris, product development/marketing manager at Carpentree, Inc., says stores need to offer customers a festive and fun shopping experience that encourages them to think of their local Christian store as a gift-shopping destination. She recommends retailers start by engaging their customers’ five senses.

“Think about stores you shop in that literally take you to a new place when you walk in. The lighting, the music, the fixtures, the products, and the staff all work together to make an experience for the customer,” she says. “Does your store invite people in with its merchandising? Does the first blink in the doorway entice the customer to wander through the store?”

She recommends setting up a holiday table adorned with a tree and wrapped boxes used as risers to offer great books across several categories or a mix of gift categories across the store.

“Setting the stage for Christmas sales begins with establishing a color theme and making even small changes around the store to incorporate the theme. Traditional red and green may be the best option if the store is bringing in lots of Christmas décor,” says Morris. “Silver and gold is another option. A mix of these works well, too.”

Gifts bags stuffed with theme colors can be strategically placed over the sales floor, she adds, pointing out that poinsettias, big bows, or garland in all store displays keep everything festive and subtlety suggest reasons to buy.

“The biggest opportunity is to create displays that remind guests that everything in the store can be a gift item, not just items in the gift department,” says Amster. “Retailers can accomplish this by creating endcaps and little feature displays throughout the entire store that reminds shoppers that Christmas is around the corner. By adding greenery or a wrapped box, you can remind people to be thinking of gift giving all through the store.”

Christmas props can add a lot to the feelings of nostalgia and warmth of the season. “An antique table, a fireplace mantel, or a kitchen sideboard suitably dressed up with ornaments or stockings, antique crockery, an old sled, a red wagon … the list goes on and on. All these things can work together to create vignettes that carry the heart to Christmases past and act as an invitation to spend time in the store to shop,” says Morris.

“The sense of smell evokes memories of Christmases past,” she adds. “Be sure not to miss this important element of creating an environment to buy. Serve cookies, give candy canes, and keep a coffee pot and tea service ready, especially on heavy traffic days. If you have food items to sell, offer sample tastes, too.”

Adding to the ambiance should be playing Christmas music and putting lights in key displays. And don’t neglect other departments, because they, too, are a great place to remind shoppers to buy.

“A children’s area might have a small tree for them to decorate or crayons, scraps of wrapping paper or tissue, and paper for making cards,” says Morris. “Offer a story time or a children’s book review or display stockings on a mantel with books peeking over the top. Show a list of the top 10 best books for kids under age five, under age 12, or tweens.”

2. Market Creatively

Marketing is an important key to making sales. Val Buick, a retail buying and merchandising specialist says retailers need to market their store constantly during the holidays.

“You need those customers to be wanting to check out your store and see what you have that will meet their needs and wants for the holiday season,” she says.

Buick suggests retailers pull their team together and ask for marketing ideas. “What have they seen other stores do that seems to work? What have you done that customers have responded to in the past? The more the staff is involved on the brainstorming level, the more they will promote the store to their friends and customers.”

One idea is to hold an evening of sneak previews. “Serve warm apple cider to each customer that comes in the door. Have a drawing for a special giveaway for product that you need to move out, but when you package it in a fun basket all wrapped in bows and cellophane, it becomes an awesome give away,” says Buick. “Have something special going on for your store each week of the holiday season. Perhaps a story time for the kids or a book signing with a local author. Let your local paper and radio station know what’s happening.”

3. Plan Early

Retailers who work out the details now can make the Christmas season work in their favor.

“You can match or exceed your previous holiday sales and move into the coming year on a positive trajectory, [but] it takes major planning before the July shows and conventions,” says Buick. “Flying by the seat of your pants and praying that you sell lots of product during the holidays doesn’t cut it.”

Morris stresses that having a plan in place is important before placing your first Christmas order. “Vendors are placing their Christmas orders and need to know what you—their customer—is most interested in,” she says. “Ordering early also allows you time to plan displays and acquire props.”

Buick suggests retailers begin by assessing the front of their store. “What are the fixtures that you can change up on a weekly or biweekly basis? Do you need to find some new fixtures to create interest or that can be moved around to different groupings to help create interest? You can find pieces of furniture that add interest and texture without spending a lot of money.”

Next, she says, retailers need to decide what product they will be ordering. “This is determined by what has sold well in the past and what the trends are. What stories do you want to tell and what products logically go together? List all the products that you currently have or that you know are already coming in, and then figure out how many other products you will need to fill out the story.”

“Without proper planning, you are planning to fail,” says Integra Interactive Inc. VP of Product Merchandising Michelle Amster. “You need to walk your store and decide what type of merchandise you will put on all of your flex/seasonal displays. This will help you not buy too much product and will help you have a plan as it is all arriving. Remember to create displays for all different buying groups such as men, women, teens, teachers, etc.”

4. Follow Trends

For the coming holiday season, Morris says the homespun look and farmhouse style will remain a trend in gifts and décor. Amster sees personalization being popular.

“Everybody loves to see his or her name on something,” she says. “There are systems out there that allow you to do personalization right in your store so that your customers leave the store with their gift right away.”

Buick notes that candles are selling like hotcakes while woodland and retro continue to be popular themes. “It’s good to remember that nostalgia and charming Christmas decorations continue to be the way customers make their homes festive for the holidays. Make sure you have plenty of decor options, including tabletop decor and ornaments that speak to the homespun look and the rustic cabin feel.”

She suggests decorating an area of the store to look like the corner of a living room so customers can visualize what these pieces might look like in their homes.

5. Buy Strategically

Because the holiday season starts in October and runs through December, Buick says, retailers need to look at previous years’ numbers as a whole for the holiday quarter and determine what percentage of increase they want to shoot for in the coming holiday season.

“Take time to understand what has sold well the last few years. Once you have looked at your numbers, determine the four or five biggest-selling product buckets, by year, then combine the years and see what products rise to the top. Then you need to drill down in each category. Once you have this information for the last two or three years, then you have the beginnings of a roadmap for the upcoming holiday season,” says Buick.

“Ask vendors about their older stock—and ask for an extra discount, especially older releases of Christmas ornaments or featured items,” says Morris. “Bring these items in for sale in October and early November to jumpstart the season with some discounted or lower-priced gifts.”

Because functional gifts are the most likely to be purchased, she suggests retailers look for items that may fit Christmas merchandising and color themes. “Show customers how these items might be used. For example, hostess gifts, gifts for the kitchen, gifts for the kids, etc.”

Buick says a general rule of thumb when ordering products for the fall is to order minimums of three, but many times it is good to order minimum of six. “We need to get out of the one- or two-piece-deep mentality; that really defeats your sell-though. Once you have your product selection and product direction determined, this leads to merchandising.”

UNITE Training

At UNITE 2017 this month in Cincinnati, Ohio, Sherry Morris and Michelle Amster will present a workshop on making your store a destination for gifts, at which they will share proven merchandising techniques that can shape a shopper’s store experience. You will receive the creative tools needed to carry forward a gift campaign and offer customers a fresh and fun shopping experience each time they come in your store.

In addition, Morris will lead Gift & Specialty Buying: Making Gift Campaigns Work, a workshop that shows attendees how to build a strategy that works to meet customer needs, increase sales, and avoid out-of-stocks. You also will learn how to create a plan focused on customers, gain insights into mart and convention buying, and see how basic inventory management and category measurements build success.

— Lora Schrock

Check out the UNITE 2017 Workshop: Gift Merchandising with Purpose
4:40-6 p.m. Wednesday, June 28