Can we use the C word yet? | by Mark Kacary

Can we use the C word yet? | by Mark Kacary

I started this article like most whilst walking our dogs on the beach sometime between 4.30-5.00am in the latter half of August.

It’s peaceful, the dogs like it, I like it, it’s my quiet time. It’s one of the few moments in the day I have to myself. It’s a time when I allow myself to not only physically, but mentally wake up. I’m in my own world. It’s not a time for pleasantries with a cheery good morning. It’s a time when I have time to think. It’s when I can think through problems, or it’s the time I come up with the first version of an idea. That can be anything from how to rearrange the shop, which products we should promote or something more complex as I mentally walk through the customer experience on our website. I use my time to seek my equivalent of the incremental improvements the British cycling team implemented to become a dominant force in track and road cycling. Clearly we’re not looking for world domination but it’s through incremental improvements that our business (The Norfolk Deli) can maintain what is on the whole a good reputation, and so that we can gain more customers than we lose ensuring visitors who holiday in and around Hunstanton each summer will find us here for at least a few more years.

Compared to a few weeks ago I am now leaving with the dogs in the dark and by the time I’ve walked along the beach to Old Hunstanton the first rays of light are on the horizon. At least the return journey is in daylight, but that won’t be for long. With the last Bank Holiday weekend of summer looming, our minds in the deli finally turn towards that final retail hurrah of the year, Christmas! Yes, I know for those reading this you’ll be cursing me for using the “C” word already but if you have a retail shop the first Christmas catalogues will have dropped through the door in February. We’ve been bombarded with emails ever since reminding us to place our Christmas orders, in fact by now we’ve missed the boat with some of our suppliers.

If you’re someone who likes to pack away everything on Boxing Day and not think about Christmas for the next 363 days of the year then think yourself lucky you don’t work in retail. We must try & predict the number of customers we’re likely to have and what they’ll want to buy. Whether you’re a small independent like us or a supermarket megastore somebody somewhere will be scouring the catalogues, scratching their heads and then finally crossing their fingers in the hope they get their ordering right. Get it wrong and financially it could mean the difference between Christmas cheer and Christmas ruin. Large amounts of Christmas stock on sale in January means only one thing for a retailer, they got it wrong. Over the years we’ve learnt what we should and shouldn’t stock. There are products we’d love to stock, something different, exciting and beautifully packaged but which at the same time we know they’ll end up in the sale basket sometime after 6th January.

Unlike Selfridges which opens its Christmas store in July, we leave things as late as possible. We’ll deck the shop in its Christmas finery in time for the annual “Christmas Cracker” but don’t expect too many products which you’d associate only with Christmas. Running a food and drink retail shop in a town with 2 decent sized supermarkets and a 3rd on the edge of town the difficulty is that whilst our Panettone is a product from Milan or our Stollen comes from Bavaria this authentic product comes with a price that’s higher than the prices of similar products sold in the supermarkets. In our first year we were naïve and bought stock as if we still lived in an SW postcode of London or where we lived prior to moving from West Berkshire.

When we first opened, we bought lots of chocolate, marzipan fruits, Italian Milanese Panettone, mountains of Stollen, in fact we looked like a booth at a German Christmas market. Unfortunately, the majority of what we bought ended up in our bargain basket which lost us money. It taught us a couple of important lessons. The first being that we should never assume things and secondly, that just because a product will sell in one shop, it doesn’t mean it will sell here. If it looks like a panettone, smells like a panettone but is significantly less expensive than a beautifully packaged authentic panettone from Milan unfortunate as it may be on this occasion the supermarkets win. As a result, most of the Christmas catalogues we’re sent are binned. A salient lesson for many small businesses is to avoid the dreaded bargain basket is to make your offering different.

Our uniqueness is in the way we focus on products too small to make it onto the supermarket shelves. Products made in Norfolk. Everything from jams, marmalades, chutneys, mustards, beers, wine, spirits, cheese and much more. We help our customers avoid a generic Christmas. Foodie gifts are always welcome especially if they are based on unique local products.

My walk is almost at an end and the dogs will expect a hearty breakfast before we open the shop for another day’s trading. As the summer season draws to a close my mind is very focussed on what after summer is our second busiest time of the year. I’m thinking about how we’ll decorate the shop, and what we’ll be doing to give the window display that Christmassy feel. I’m also mentally restructuring our website, creating a Christmas theme mini site where the focus will be on the wonderful range of Christmas gift hampers, we configure every year. This is one of the areas where we demonstrate our uniqueness. Many places sell Christmas Hampers and several local businesses offer a bespoke hamper service (provided you go in person), but we’re the only Norfolk business creating hampers filled solely with Norfolk produce, or that gives customers the ability to create their own bespoke hamper entirely on line. We created Norfolk’s Online Farmers Market last year, a place which supports approximately 60 local Norfolk businesses and where customers across the UK can buy more than 500+ Norfolk products. It’s the only permanent Norfolk Farmer’s market open 24 hours a day 365 days of the year.

Ultimately what we’ve discovered is that the best presents are those which at very least appear as if some thought has been given to the products, their provenance and how it’s presented. It will take a few more early morning walks with the dogs to finalise our plans, but thanks to them we’ll launch our micro website on the 1st October and the last big event of the year will be underway.

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