KLAIPEDA - Christmas bells are jingling - not yet on Santa Claus’ sleighs, but in lavishly Christmas-theme adorned malls and marts. While Lithuanian ethno-culture guardians and clergy lament that Christmas is rapidly losing its divine implication, four Lithuanian grocery whales - Maxima, Norfa, IKI and Rimi - rejoice that in cash-strapped times buyers are flocking to their marts, ferreting around their shelves for that special Christmas trifle. All representatives of the retail chains agree that this year’s Christmas shopping has begun three weeks earlier than usually.
Kristina Maiksteniene, head of ISM Management and Economy University’s Marketing Strategy and Administration Program, does not doubt that Christmas shopping will be bustling until the holidays. “I have come up with a saying, that a man buys on three occasions. First, when he or she needs something, second, when there is an offer of a smaller price and, third, when Christmas is nearing.”
With the unemployment rate reaching nearly 15 percent in Lithuania, even people relying on social allowances give in to the accelerating Christmas shopping spree. “Statistically, in Western countries, Christmas sales often make up nearly one-third of a year’s sales. Therefore, sellers cherish extremely high hopes for the period, thoroughly preparing their Christmas sales strategy, that mostly is about various discounts.” Maiksteniene said.
Renata Saulyte, ex-spokeswoman for Maxima, the largest grocery retailer in the country, says the supermarket chain kicked off its Christmas sales right after All Soul’s Day, Nov. 1. According to her, at first Christmas commodities were stocked up in Maxima stores on Nov. 10, and the sales took off thereafter. You may rightly expect that the best-selling commodity in pre-Christmas markets is the Christmas tree. Maxima markets are not an exception. “So far we sell only artificial Christmas spruces. However, soon, real spruces will appear near our stores. While the cheapest man-made spruce costs just a few litas, a cut-off tree will cost in the range from 30 (8.67 euros) to 100 litas, while those in pots will be from 30 to 50 litas. Usually, artificial Christmas spruce sales make up as much as twice or triple those of live trees. For example, we sold 24,000 artificial Christmas trees last year. We plan to deliver approximately 2,000 cut spruces and 5,000 in pots. Their sales pick up in the beginning of December and reach its peak from Dec. 10 until Christmas,” Lina Muiziene, director of Maxima’s Image and Communication Department, maintained to The Baltic Times.
While getting ready for the Christmas sales season, Maxima employed a bunch of designers, who were asked to create such designs of products that would cater to different tastes and different size of wallets. “Bearing in mind our Lithuanian traditions, this year we offer our customers merchandise that matches our Christmas customs. Thus, we suggest buying a set of neutral nature color Christmas items made from felt or straws - felt toys, home decorations, knitt socks, cotton or linen table-cloths,” Muiziene revealed.
According to her, Maxima designers have created three styles for the holiday season – classic, naturalistic and luxurious Eccentric. The largest food retailer for the Christmas festive table is going to introduce some novelties. “Besides traditional fowl, such as turkey, chicken and goose, this season we are going to offer pheasant, royal quail and ostrich meat. Those who want to savor extraordinary cuisine will be able to relish duck and goose liver, all kinds of pate. In addition, we will offer more Italian delicacies, such as Parma ham and dried sausages. Especially for the holidays, we have brought an array of special French, Italian and English cheeses. As always, before Christmas, Maxima will expand its confectionary assortment, particularly focusing on sweets in Christmas wrappings,” the biggest Lithuanian food retailer’s representative pointed out. She claims that the period from mid-November until New Year’s amasses the bulk of the trade. “Compared to an ordinary month, sales turnover goes up by one-third in December,” Muiziene emphasized. Last year, from Nov. 23 to Dec. 31, Christmas sales made up 1 percent of the general turnover. Despite cheerful forecasts for the holiday season, Maxima admits to having suffered a 30 percent Christmas sales slump in the crisis-stricken years, compared to pre-crisis Christmas sales. “However, we can offer our customers a wide product assortment according to their incomes,” Muiziene emphasized.
Jovita Bagdonaite, spokeswoman for another grocery giant, Rimi, also maintained that Christmas trade has begun unusually early this year, at the beginning of November. “Before the downturn, customers were quicker to spend money; now shoppers tend to be choosier while picking items, comparing prices and waiting for special offers. We have renewed this year’s holiday assortment from the core – it is much more varied, and, most importantly, offers optimal prices and quality,” Bagdonaite asserted to The Baltic Times.
The vast majority of Rimi’s Christmas merchandise has been imported from China. “However, all Chinese items comply with strict quality standards of our daughter company, ICA Global Sourcing,” she remarked. The Rimi spokesperson says customers were eagerly following discount offers in Rimi markets last year – the behavior attributed to all crisis stricken-buyers. “Discounted items went quite well last year. We think that similar trends will prevail this year as well. Therefore, plenty of discount offers, quality and attractiveness remain the most important facets to us,” Bagdonaite asserted. In Rimi markets, as elsewhere, Christmas sales kicked off early in November and will reach its peak in the second half of December. However, Rimi’s representative did not elaborate on exact sales turnover.
While forming its holiday assortment last year, Rimi got rid of many luxury items, particularly in the food and presents segments. “Customers’ purchasing patterns show that people tend to celebrate Christmas and New Year in a more modest way in recent years. Therefore, we have that in consideration when making up this holiday season’s assortment as well,” Bagdonaite emphasized. This season, the traditional Lithuanian spruces’ prevalence in Rimi stores will be likely challenged by Danish silver spruces, in spite of their bigger price. “Last year, we offered Lithuanian spruces from 10 to 30 litas per unit, while a Danish spruce’s price ranged from 50 to 100 litas. Danish spruces are long-lived, to be exact, they last up to two months, their fir-needles do not jab – qualities that helped them to outsell Lithuanian thorns. In addition, we have added new kinds of artificial Christmas trees to the usual assortment this year – rose and blue spruces. Shoppers exhibit much interest in them; however, buyers prefer real spruces to the manufactured ones,” Bagdonaite said.
Valdas Lopeta, spokesperson for IKI, the second largest grocery retailer, says that this year’s holiday assortment will be put together according to last year’s most popular Christmas gift list. “This year we expect a similar turnover like last year,” Lopeta admitted, refusing to elaborate on exact numbers. “Along with Christmas souvenirs, carnival costumes, artificial Christmas trees and decorations we will offer our customers especially for the holiday season manufactured items, including poppy pie, Christmas cake and kuciukai,” the IKI representative suggested to The Baltic Times.
He admits a 20 percent usual sales hike in December, compared to other months. Since the downturn has reshaped customers’ shopping customs, making price the main indicator, IKI focuses on low-to-moderately priced goods that did well last year. The supermarket chain has already started selling silver spruces near its markets, whose sales should peak as usual – before Christmas. “We notice a trend that buyers lately favor artificial spruces over real ones,” Lopeta suggested.
Darius Ryliskis, spokesperson for Norfa, the fourth largest grocery market in the country, admitted to similar seasonal trade developments in Norfa’s 122 stores. “The Christmas sales season started a few weeks earlier than usual. We felt that crisis-stricken people needed to have more time to make up their mind when it comes to Christmas shopping. Those commodities that were on demand last year will be on sale this year as well. However, every year we observe interesting things in buyers’ behavior. Thus, last year, Christmas glass toys designed for Christmas tree adornment were unexpectedly quite a go-go item,” Ryliskis related to The Baltic Times. According to him, turnover usually increases by twice during the last two weeks before Christmas. “However, generally speaking, yearly turnover is 6 percent less this year compared to 2009. Despite the vivacity in the stores, we expect this year’s Christmas sales to be approximately 6 percent weaker than last year,” the Norfa representative admitted.
The supermarket chain will start selling Christmas spruces next week. All representatives of the Lithuanian grocery retailers agree that Christmas sales are picking up rapidly in speed and will turn into a shopping frenzy before Christmas.