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Monday, 17 December, 2001, 08:14 GMT
Christmas food shopping uncovered
by BBC News Online's Emma Clark
Behind the scenes Christmas' little helpers are working overtime to deliver all the goodies we look forward to over the holiday period.
And we are not talking about Santa Claus' elves, but a band of supply managers who spend 14 months planning for Christmas to ensure there are enough sprouts and turkeys to go round.
Kate Barham is Sainsbury's Christmas project manager 2001 and has spent the past year co-ordinating planning across the chain's different departments.
She has certainly been busy - Sainsbury's laid on 1,000 extra products for shoppers this Christmas.
Chris Saunby, general manager for fresh food supply, and Graeme Douglas, general manager for groceries, beer, wine and spirits, together stock the shelves with food for over eight million customers.
'A logistical nightmare'
As a result of intricate planning, the volume of food going through the supermarkets at Christmas almost doubles.
"It is a logistical nightmare to deal with the volumes," adds Tarlok Teji, a partner in the UK consumer business group at Deloitte & Touche.
"You have to have phased deliveries and be constantly building volume."
Alcohol and packeted products tend to hit the shelves first before the stores gear up for all the fresh produce.
In the last 10 days before Christmas, some of the major flagship supermarkets receive deliveries almost every hour to keep up with customer demand.
It is no wonder that the three months around Christmas are known as the "golden quarter".
Supermarkets rake in a substantial amount of their annual profits during this period.
You might think that the supply managers could take a breather after Christmas, but in fact planning for the next year starts before the turkey even goes cold.
Over the entire holiday period, the supermarkets are constantly analysing sales.
"We have an autopsy," says Asda's Mr Saunby. "We look at what's happening during Christmas. We get store feedback and customer feedback before we place our orders for next year."
By February, Sainsbury's is planning production time for its Christmas puddings and last year took feedback from the Women's Institute.
Believe it or not - it also consulted with joke experts to improve the offerings in its crackers.
The next burst of activity comes in the summer when the supermarkets enact a bizarre series of dress rehearsals.
"It is done overnight so that the customers were not annoyed by the snow flakes," she says.
Photos were taken and then shown to staff during training sessions so that they could get this year's Christmas look just right.
By September, the supermarkets start placing orders for Christmas.
Orders for some of the fresh food, such as sprouts, are constantly adjusted, even at the last minute, says Mr Saunby.
The biggest sellers are of course sprouts, turkey, wine, crackers and Christmas puddings.
About 90% of the turkeys and sprouts sold in a year are bought at Christmas.
Tesco, which has its own dedicated sprout manager, plans to sell 150 million sprouts in the week running up to Christmas.
If these sprouts were lined up they would reach to Brussels and back 11 times, according to the supermarket's own research.
Over the years, stores have worked hard to mix the traditional products with innovations.
Marks & Spencer has traditionally been an innovator and played a key role in bringing luxury produce, such as stilton and preserves, to the mass market, says Jacquie Scull, a retail consultant at KPMG Consulting.
As Ms Barham points out, Christmas is about "lots of tradition with a slight twist".
The slight twist saw an strong uplift in sales for goose and duck last year, according to the British Retail Consortium.
Goose sales were likely influenced by a Delia Smith recipe - and it is a matter of priority for supermarkets to scan recipes of celebrity chefs to make sure that all the ingredients are readily available.
Seven more days to go...
With only a week to go until Christmas Eve, food shopping is shifting up a gear.
Asda has over 1,000 trucks on the road delivering food - 40% more than usual - as herds of customers begin to trample through the stores.
And ironically, for all their planning, Ms Barham, Mr Douglas and Mr Saunby will be leaving their food shopping until the last minute.
Perhaps that is a measure of their confidence that this year the shelves will not run dry on Christmas Eve.
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