Christmas Planning

Harrogate Christmas & Gift has become a key event as garden retailers become increasingly reliant on seasonal sales, Jack Shamash reports

Harrogate Christmas & Gift, which will open on 12 January 2014, has become one of the most important events in the year for garden retailers who are increasingly dependent on Christmas sales. At Van Hage garden centres, for example, Christmas takings are estimated to account for seven per cent of turnover.

The Harrogate fair, taking place while memories of Christmas are still fresh, represents the ideal way of stocking up for the following year. Organisers believe the event will be bigger and better than ever. "We’ve made a huge promotional effort," says organiser Simon Anslow. "In 2013, we had 75 exhibitors. This time we expect 90."

Visitor numbers will also be high. In 2013, despite bad weather, 3,800 people turned up for the trade fair. In 2014, some 4,200 are confidently expected at the Harrogate International Centre.

Huge variety

As well as the usual decorations — baubles, tinsels, tree toppers, fluffy toys, etc — there will also be a whole host of artificial trees and artificial flowers. The huge variety of goods on offer will cover the whole spectrum of prices from cheap-and-cheerful to high-end chic.

Anslow says: "A lot of centres will want to get toys as presents for Santa’s grotto. These will obviously be cheap items. But at the other end, many suppliers will be offering high-quality glass baubles and specialist ceramics. We’ve got buyers from department stores such as Debenhams, John Lewis and Selfridges. Some of the stuff is very upmarket."

Exhibitors will come from all over the world, with 14 countries represented. Riffelmacher from Germany and Jette Frolich from Denmark will show ranges of high-quality European novelties and decorations. Brink Nordic, also from Denmark, will have baubles including representations of London buses and taxis. Artificial Christmas trees from the USA and Hong Kong will be on display, and a Canadian firm will showcase its latest trolleys for garden centres.

There are no seminars or talks at the show. This is intentional, says Anslow. "The buyers are very busy. They know very clearly what they want. The buyers are there to buy. We don’t want to distract them." While there are bigger shows, Harrogate offers a relaxed opportunity for buyers to discuss their needs with suppliers. "Garden centres tell us that it’s very important," he adds. "Other fairs are huge, but this is more targeted."

It is also a place to make hard-and-fast orders. "The buyers will be signing contracts," Anslow points out. Retailers need to order their Christmas stock several months in advance. Most of the seasonal items are made to order by Asian producers. Many of them involve a lot of hand labour — painting and applying detail. The orders have to be processed by February or March so that the goods can be manufactured, shipped out and in the shops for October and November.

Festive Productions marketing executive Jonathan Hughes says: "Chinese firms are getting more difficult to work with — you can no longer dictate to them. You have to form a close working relationship. That means you have to give them lots of notice if you need anything."

Gisela Graham is one of the big firms that heavily relies on the Harrogate event. Sales and marketing director Piers Croke says: "Every serious trader in the Christmas market has to go there. The past season is very fresh in people’s minds, so customers can buy in an informed way."

The company’s products are designed in-house. "Our range changes every year," he adds. "The show is always the first outing of our new range. By the end of the show we’ll know if we’re going to have a good year or a so-so one."

More display space

Thirty per cent of the firm’s output goes to garden centres — the rest can be found in upscale independents including Harrods and Selfridges. The firm is sending 14 staff to the show and has taken around 30 per cent more display space than in 2013. Around two-thirds of the items on its stand will be directly linked to Christmas. The rest are everyday gift items and products for special occasions such as Easter and Mother’s Day.

"Some of our stock is more general," says Croke. "We’ve got 17 themed ranges, three of which are linked to gardening. We’ve got matching ceramic teapots and mugs and items with gardening imagery." According to Croke, the core business is still items that will retail for under £20. "People want to spend small amounts on things that are pretty and eye-catching," he explains.

There is a lot of rustic chic — items designed to look as though they were made in the 1940s and 1950s — and demand for bunting is on the increase. "We can’t get enough bunting. People like it because it gives festive room decoration, quickly and cheaply," adds Croke.

People also want rural themes. "Foxes, birds of every sort, particularly English birds such as robins and tits, are very popular, and there are lots of owls," he points out. "There seems to be a nostalgia for ?lost innocence."

At Festive Productions, Hughes believes we will see more retro items, based on the style of the 1970s and 1980s. "We’re seeing LED lights in plastic shades and lots of tinsel," he notes. "People want things that are ironic and kitsch."

His company is one of the few to be offering licensed products. It is selling items branded with the Hello Kitty label, featuring a simple cartoonish cat. This is popular with both children and older people, who like it in an ironic fashion. The firm is also selling a range of Kirstie Allsopp items branded with images of the television presenter, who advises the Conservative Party on housing. To promote these ranges, it will offer point-of-sale material and display units.

At Gisela Graham, Croke is relatively confident about the future. "People always spend on children. Sales are still strong. A lot of our sales are about lifestyle. We’re selling candle holders, table centres, wreaths, room decorations. We design most of our items ourselves, from scratch. That gives us a major point of difference."

Recuring themes

Many popular themes recur from year to year. "The big colours are always red, gold and silver. People also want robins and woodland animals. But they want subtle shifts. They like novelty," says Hughes. Sage Décor managing director John Aimley also feels that small animals are a popular line. "Anything sweet and cute will always sell well — ladybirds, owls, hedgehogs," he points out.

One surprising trend is that British manufacturers are able to take on the Chinese in some areas. "We produce our own tinsel," says Hughes. "Our factory in Wales currently turns out £3m of tinsel per year. This accounts for one-10th of our turnover. We’ve seen a huge boost in sales." He suggests that high sales are due to the fact that the British tinsel does not have to be squashed into boxes for several weeks for shipping, so it looks better when it reaches the customer.

As ever, there is high demand for artificial flowers. Many of these are extremely realistic — almost indistinguishable from the real thing. Aimley says: "We don’t normally bring them to the show but we’ve got more space this year so we’ll be taking a good selection. We haven’t yet decided what varieties to bring."

Premier marketing manager Phil Swainston has not as yet decided what to sell. "Our buying team is just going out to the East. We start putting our catalogue together in December. There is relatively little change in our side of the Christmas market. The biggest change over the past few years is the growth of LEDs. These days everything is lit by LED."

There is one other key factor that should be in evidence at the show — optimism. "People are starting to respond to the improved economic situation," says Anslow. "They are spending a little more. It’s very positive."

Croke adds: "One detects a slight reduction in tension. People are not quite so nervous about the future and this is reflected in their spending decisions." Interesting products and a more confident economic environment should mean that the Harrogate fair will be livelier than ever.

Show details

  • Harrogate Christmas & Gift
  • When 12-15 January 2014
  • Where Harrogate International Centre, King’s Road, Harrogate, North Yorkshire HG1 5LA
  • Website www.harrogatefair.com

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