Seasonal marketing: Not just for Christmas

Sex, violence and bunnies - lingerie for Father's Day, fake fangs at Halloween and eggs at Easter prove there is more than one season worth promoting, writes Poppy Brech.

Are you fresh out of fake blood? Running low on bat wands?

As Halloween looms, not only can you add 'can of chocolate worms' to your fantasy shopping list, a trip to the supermarket means you'll be able to buy them and much more.

Annual events such as Easter, Halloween and Mother's and Father's Day have long provided retailers and manufacturers with a convenient annual hook for promotions, which can increase footfall and sales. And the evidence suggests UK consumers respond well to them. Retail analyst SPSL estimates that, on average, seasonal events (excluding Easter and Christmas) increase shopper numbers by between 6%-8%, while the British Retail Consortium (BRC) shows that Valentine's Day alone is worth approximately £2.4bn to the retail sector.

Broader focus

With brands needing to stimulate growth across the calendar year, and not just hoping for a spike at Christmas, industry experts agree that diary events are gaining in significance. 'Where previously the focus was on Christmas, Easter, the end of the school holidays and the January and July sales, we are now seeing more marketing around Father's Day, Mother's Day and Halloween,' says BRC director general Kevin Hawkins.

As retail experiences its worst dip since the early-90s, with like-for-like growth down in seven of the past nine months, retailers are under even greater pressure to get seasonal events right. 'To stimulate any consumer activity and interest you have to go one better than you did last year, so there is a constant upping of the ante,' says Hawkins.

'It's about ensuring that when customers come in at these times, you've got what they want,' adds a spokesperson for Boots. 'If you don't have that offer they go elsewhere.'

It is no surprise that competition is fuelled by the supermarkets, which have the buying power, product ranges, physical space and marketing muscle to maximise these opportunities. It is now standard practice for bigger stores to have an aisle dedicated to seasonal events. According to a Tesco spokesperson, customer feedback suggests these aisles are not only convenient, they provide a useful reminder of forthcoming events.

Asda's current Halloween campaign (see box above) propels diary events into the realms of 'retail-tainment'. Retail media specialist Bezier handles point-of-purchase for Asda's in-store marketing events, including Halloween.

Ian Carnazza, managing director of Bezier Wakefield, says: 'Retail-tainment is in-store theatre, with product sampling and people in costumes. It reminds customers to buy something for an event and gives them an enjoyable shopping experience. This creates a point of difference in a competitive market.'

Ann Summers head of marketing Gordon Lee echoes this view. His strategy for attracting customers, and building Ann Summers' profile, is to give conventional events such as Father's Day a cheeky twist. 'Fun is a really important part of our brand,' he says. 'We need to have excitement and activity in-store, or customers and staff are left waiting from Easter to Christmas for something to happen.'

But events such as Asda's Halloween campaign, with inflatable monsters from the Far East, do not come cheap. Few retailers will disclose the marketing investment behind their seasonal events, but Carnazza maintains that their already-substantial investment in supporting these days through point of purchase is increasing, and that events marketing as a whole is taking a bigger slice of marketing budgets.

Hawkins agrees. 'Retailers are putting a lot effort into in-store merchandising and point of sale to flag up these events, in some cases supporting them with TV advertising,' he says.

Return on investment

Do seasonal events justify this increased investment by providing a reliable and sustainable revenue stream? The view from the high street seems to be a cautious 'yes'. Ann Summers' Lee says that this year's (Carpet) Burns' Night in Scotland and 'Ow's Yer Father's Day' (see box above) generated a 25% and 15% uplift respectively in like-for-like sales. Taken on their own, these are small peaks, but at its year end in June Ann Summers reported that like-for-like growth was up 11%.

Boots has returned to gifting and seasonal events in the past three years as a key part of its brand, having previously concentrated on its wellbeing offer. Nevertheless, the retailer plays down the contribution that diary events make to the bottom line. 'They offer an opportunity outside Christmas to increase sales but no one pins their first-quarter or second-quarter forecasts on them,' says a spokesperson.

As for the supermarkets, the answer to the investment question is a more resounding 'yes'. Mintel director of retail research Richard Perks describes grocery brands' Halloween promotions as 'opportunistic' but usually profitable. 'The merchandise is low cost, you buy it in big volumes and the offers are short term,' he says. 'The items are low value, but there's probably a reasonable margin and little competition - people don't shop around for Halloween masks and fangs.'

Perks adds that grocery retailers are ideally placed to manage the seasonality of these events. 'Grocery brands' growth strategy is based around developing a non-food offering,' he says. 'Seasonal events promote sales in areas they're trying to build up.'

The consensus is that diary events are likely to grow in importance.

Future events may become more multicultural and could include Diwali - the Hindu Festival of Lights - while existing events such as Father's Day are likely to become bigger magnets for marketing spend.

SPSL retail psychologist Dr Tim Denison warns diary events should not be taken for granted. 'The impact of seasonal events is linked to the feel-good factor, particularly the amount of money people have in their pockets,' he says. 'If the feel-good factor is present when customers are faced with seasonal goods, they'll buy them. If it isn't, they'll leave them for next year.'

HALLOWEEN

Halloween has become one of the major events in the supermarkets' calendar, signalling the start of the party season. Figures from retail analyst SPSL show that Halloween 2004 helped the grocery, convenience and stationery sectors to a 16% increase in footfall on the previous year. According to SPSL retail psychologist Dr Tim Denison, the current downturn in consumer confidence means shopper numbers this year are unlikely to match last year's peak.

This won't deter some of the big grocery retailers, such as Asda. Given the popularity of Halloween in the US, it is not surprising the Wal-Mart-owned retailer tries to 'own' Halloween with lavish in-store campaigns.

This year's UK theme is 'Monster low prices for Halloween'. The display features giant inflatable monster heads, and other special touches include glow-in-the-dark floor graphics, over-aisle canopies and blacked-out shelves, all designed to create a spooky atmosphere. Banners and floor stickers lead customers to the Halloween aisle.

Ann Summers is also marking Halloween with a 'Trick or treat' theme designed to promote its stocking and costume ranges. Windows will feature retro Russ Meyer-style cinema posters inviting customers to come in and have a 'trick or treat', while staff will be dressing up in some of the costumes.

EASTER

Easter is critical for DIY retailers because it heralds the start of the Bank Holiday season when, according to the British Retail Consortium, customers spend about £2bn on DIY-related items. This year the combination of an earlier Easter and poor weather did not bring such good news: figures from retail analyst SPSL show that the DIY and garden sector experienced a 6.6% year-on-year drop in footfall during the two weeks of Easter.

B&Q used the Easter period to trial soft furnishings, including cushions and throws, and premium kitchen ranges, in a handful of its stores. The products have subsequently been rolled out to more than 100 of its bigger stores. In a new ad campaign through JWT, the DIY retailer departed from its strategy of using staff in ads to focus more on female customers and position its products as more aspirational.

Elsewhere, with multi-buy offers squeezing margins on Easter eggs, retailers promoted toys and small gifts in a bid to increase profits. Under the banner 'Active Kids', Tesco used its seasonal aisle to pull together Spider-Man-themed ranges that featured skateboards, bike helmets and Easter eggs to give parents a wider choice of gifts. This coincided with a survey by Continental Research showing that children's gift expectations at Easter have rocketed.

MOTHER'S AND FATHER'S DAY

Mums are more important than dads if the amount spent on them is anything to go by. British Retail Consortium figures show Mother's Day is worth about £1.3bn to the retail sector compared with Father's Day, which is worth £1bn. But Ann Summers was keen to put Dads' needs on the map with its 'How's yer Father's Day' campaign, which aimed to persuade women - who form 80% of its customer base - to buy sexy underwear for themselves, rather than boring underwear for their partners.

Head of marketing Gordon Lee claimed the retailer's research found 99% of fathers would rather have sex than a conventional Father's Day present.

So novelty items such as massage oil and edible thongs were ticketed with stickers saying 'Sex not sox'. The stickers were handed out to male customers visiting the store in the run-up to Father's Day. Lee claimed the promotion resulted in an 11% uplift in like-for-like sales.

Elsewhere, Thomson joined forces with upmarket coffee, tea and gift retailer Whittard to launch a 'Treat your loved one' promotion to coincide with Mother's Day. Customers who spent £20 or more at Whittard qualified for a £100 discount off any Thomson Cruise. The promotion aimed to drive footfall into Thomson retail outlets, and according to its parent company TUI, this resulted in a satisfying spike in cruise sales.

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