Jane Lindsey, 50, remembers the first few years her online craft and homeware business got very busy. She had been working such long hours throughout December she missed Christmas entirely. “At that point I had small children, but I just slept through Christmas day.”

The run-up to Christmas for small businesses and sole traders can be brutal, particularly for those in retail. Jane’s Snapdragon Life, which she set up 11 years ago, does 70% of its gift sales over Christmas, so it is crucial she gets it right.

Retail coach Hana Glover, 38, says the same is true to varying degrees for almost all retail businesses, even if they are not Christmas focused. As well as running her own bead shop in Nottingham, she coaches a range of businesses, including a bakery and a homeware store. “Because everyone is out looking for presents, there are more people around to buy things. There tends to be an upturn in sales of between 20% and 50% in the period to Christmas.”

Jane sits at her sewing machine preparing stock
Jane Lindsey starts work on her Christmas range just after Easter

Christmas preparations

Hana says retailers should try and identify the products they sell, that could make good seasonal gifts. They can also think about introducing gift vouchers and wrapping services. It’s important to tweak your website to put seasonal items on the front page and highlight any extras that you offer.

She suggests slightly increasing the number of marketing emails that you send and including useful information such as Christmas posting dates and last orders. “You need to be aware that customers will want to order things on the 22nd December and get them delivered by the 24th. At that stage, people are normally willing to pay a premium for delivery.” Standard Royal Mail can take an extra day or two over Christmas, but other services may still guarantee next day delivery.

Hana stands outside her bead shop in Nottingham
Hana Glover is a retail coach and runs her own bead shop in Nottingham

Plan seasonal events

High street shops, cafes and other venues can take part in special events to get more people through the doors, such as late night shopping dates or a Christmas workshop. Christmas workshops are designed to encourage customers to discover new aspects of your product range. To give them the confidence to try out new items. Hana says: “If you can get someone in from outside to do that, it gives you all of the benefits of increased footfall, without you having to do the extra work.”

Hana also suggests collaborating with other independents by developing a shopping trail, or joint promotions on Instagram for online-only businesses, to reduce the workload. “You’re able to share each other’s content rather than having to produce it all yourself. It’s a good way of increasing your reach as well and finding new customers.”

Develop seasonal offers, but not too many

Businesses may want to think of what they can offer customers for Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Hana recommends finding something that does not dent profits or create a lot of work in the busy Christmas period, such as offering free shipping, or a voucher that can be spent in January.

She warns against too much discounting ahead of Christmas. “I know it’s something the bigger retailers do a lot, but it seems very odd to be discounting products during your busiest time. That’s when you’re most likely to sell them and when you can build up your profits to see you through the leaner months.”

Instead, she offers a free gift over a certain level of spend. “It’s a very easy time of year to encourage customers to spend that little bit more.”

Start planning early

Early planning is vital. Ideally, those with employees need to start thinking about Christmas in April, or as soon as their holiday year begins. Business owners and employees need to agree schedules in good time. Come November, it’s very important to make sure there are enough staff available to cover particularly busy days.

Jane starts developing products for Christmas shortly after Easter. She launches those around August and uses Google Analytics to track what people are looking at on the website. “You can see what people are drawn to. That gives you a feel for which items people may buy at Christmas.”

This data helps provide the information she needs to build up her stock. She says: “The thing that I have learned is that, as we get busy, all of our suppliers get busy.” That applies not just for products but all the additional things a business needs such as sellotape and printer ink.

She makes sure she has researched alternative suppliers and tried them out in advance. “You may have a really good supplier you want to be loyal to, but you’ve got to recognise they may not be able to help you if they are also rushed off their feet.”

Hana suggests increasing stock levels from around September. “In the Christmas period, people tend to panic a bit more and they need, or perceive that they need those products there and then.”

Look after yourself

Above all, Hana says business owners need to look after their physical and mental health. “Obviously it’s not as easy switching off if you’re the only person to look after [the business], but make sure you have some boundaries; that you’re not replying to emails after a certain time of night.”

Jane would agree. Not only was she sad to miss those first few Christmases with the kids, working such long hours made her inefficient. “You start to make silly decisions if you’re doing things at two in the morning and often those slow you down rather than speed you up.

“So look after yourself. And remember that’s really important.”

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