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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.

Expected sales at Asda this week
1m kg of sprouts
Over 1m turkeys
Over 45m mince pies
Over 1m bottles of sparkling wine
2m of satsumas

Source: Asda
Their mission is to keep the supermarket shelves stocked with brazil nuts, clementines, mince pies, Christmas puddings, cheese, wine and the usual seasonal fare.

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.

Sainsbury's interior
Sainsbury's has introduced over 1,000 Xmas products
At Sainsbury's competitor, Asda, two general managers have shouldered the burden of Christmas logistics.

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.

Asda shop
Asda will ship 19 million cases of food this week
This week alone Asda will ship 19 million cases of fresh produce, compared with 10-11 million at other times in the year, says Mr Douglas.

"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."

Phased deliveries

Alcohol and packeted products tend to hit the shelves first before the stores gear up for all the fresh produce.


My stress levels are starting to decrease, just as Chris' are starting to peak

Graeme Douglas
Asda
"My stress levels are starting to decrease, just as Chris' are starting to peak," remarks Mr Douglas.

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.

Christmas autopsy

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.

Xmas pudding
Xmas puddings are planned in February
Ms Barham's replacement for next Christmas started work a month ago, while Asda is already planning to place its cracker orders for 2002 this week.

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.

Summer run-through

The next burst of activity comes in the summer when the supermarkets enact a bizarre series of dress rehearsals.

Xmas decorations
Sainsbury's tested a store for Xmas in August
Last August, Ms Barham oversaw the secret transformation of a Sainsbury's store in a dry-run for Christmas.

"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.

Orders

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.

Changing tastes

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.

See also:

05 Dec 01 | Business
E-tailers prepare for Xmas boom
13 Nov 01 | Business
High hopes of Xmas spending spree
10 Dec 01 | Business
Demand for DVDs rockets
12 Dec 01 | Business
Tesco rebuke over price claims
10 Dec 01 | Business
Asda recalls 'choke danger' toy
21 Nov 01 | Business
Sainsbury's profits edge higher
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