November is upon us and the festivities - for retailers at least - are in full swing. With seven trading weeks left to go, Liz Morrell offers seven top tips to ensure the peak period goes smoothly

With only seven weeks until Christmas it is crucial that retailers ensure every element of their store operations process - from customer service to cleanliness - is top notch if they are to convert nervous customers and win Christmas sales this year.

For the past two or three months most retailers have been focused on planning and preparing stores for Christmas. Now comes the execution. Boots head of trading operations and planning Mark Taylor says: “The key is great planning and the need for all stores and area and regional teams to have thought about it really early.”

Seven weeks to go

Be prepared

From early November the festive countdown begins in earnest as customers turn their attention to Christmas shopping. John Lewis director of selling operations David Barford says: “By the end of half-term we are in full Christmas layout and have maximum Christmas stock out.” He says at this point the business switches from planning to managing Christmas.

At Past Times, the focus is also on preparing shopfloors and the retailer has a cunning way of ensuring stores are hitting standards. Head of retail Mark Johnson says: “Stores send in photographs of peak Christmas set-up and windows as part of an incentive, which is a great motivator for the stores to deliver the best set-up, but also ensures the retail teams can check the detail in the quickest possible time.”

Six weeks to go

Motivate your staff

Delivering great customer service relies heavily on the mood of staff. Envision Retail managing director Jason Kemp says staff need to be recognised for their efforts. “It’s about appreciating staff that are working hard - full-timers, part-timers, permanent and temps,” he says. Dixons Retail operations director Sebastian James agrees: “Motivating staff is the one thing that makes a real difference and we have incentives in store that focus on making Christmas fun.”

It is also a great time for staff to learn from their peers, says Retail Performance Specialists general manager Barry Martin. “You will have great sales people so make sure they are in at busy periods and allow less experienced people to report to and learn from them. This is particularly true of temps.”

“To the customer they are your staff so ensure daily team briefings happen and temps look the part,” says The Entertainer operations director Nick Hargreaves.

Five weeks to go

Ensure stock availability

Ensuring replenishment and recovery strategies are as well polished as possible will allow for maximum stock availability on the shopfloor and maximise sales potential. Warehouse or stockroom-to-store processes need to be as slick as possible. Kemp says retailers need to know their stockroom inside out. “Is every line out? How many times have we found seasonal product in the stock room in January that never made it onto the sales floor?” he says.

Barford says that any glitches in the replenishment or recovery strategy need to be ironed out now. “This is the opportunity to test what you have implemented is fit for purpose and that you are ready for recovery and restocking, because if those things aren’t working in November they are going to be falling apart by early December,” he says.

Taylor adds: “Our motto is trade hard and recover hard - particularly when we have three-for-two offers.”

Four weeks to go

Ensure product looks its best

Allowing for top product availability while also keeping stores looking good can be a delicate balancing act.

“The key is to drive the product out but to still make it look exciting and compelling,” says Barford.

Ignoring such basics and simply piling product high can be risky. He adds: “Then it just becomes a fruit salad of product and there is a danger that you just end up driving the stock out of the warehouse without any thought to how it’s being presented.”

Barford says the skill lies in being absolutely clear about the retail offer. “This comes from looking at the space you have allocated and the volumes that are coming in,” he says.

But for other retailers, such as Dixons Retail, the piling-it-high strategy works. James says: “We absolutely pile it high and that really works for us and is critical to our customers because we will ship 10 times the weight of Wembley stadium at full capacity each week over the next six weeks.”

Three weeks to go

Check your store is fit to go

At this point a last minute review of service and staffing levels is key - increasing staffing levels and adjusting rotas as needed. Johnson says: “Ensure store staff are on four or five-hour shift rotas. This ensures flexibility within each team, that the headcount is at its highest when you need it most and you limit the risk of staff shortages if a member of staff calls in sick.”

Basics such as checking till floats, carrier bags and stationery should also have been done, and some retailers will be looking at whether they need to roll out additional mobile tills onto the shopfloor to cope with trading peaks.

Kemp suggest easier fixes too, such as introducing packers at tills to speed up the sales process. “Three packers adds the same throughput as one additional till and is also more flexible,” he says.

Two weeks to go

Deliver consistency

Barford says that once December has arrived, “it’s about more of the same but just 200% busier”. He adds: “I can’t emphasise enough the need to deliver consistency because otherwise what day or time the customer comes in depends on the experience they will have,” he says.

When it gets this close to Christmas doing the basics well is crucial. “This is not a time to deliver anything fancy but a time to deliver the basics of good product availability and great customer service,” says Barford. This includes ramping up out-of-hours recovery plans. “What were enough hours at the start of November won’t be enough in December,” says Hargreaves. But it also means allowing some tasks to cease and limiting communication. “Operations should be cutting out all unnecessary email, tasks and instructions so stores can serve and sell without distraction,” says Hargreaves.

One week to go

Prepare for clearance - without letting on to the shopper

While the shopper’s mind may have been focused on Christmas, in the mind of the store manager the preparation and planning for Sale also needs to be taking place.

“Just when you think it’s all over, you need to get ready for it to start all over again but with more volume and lower prices,” says Kemp.

At Go Outdoors, the retailer’s peak trading period begins after Christmas Day. Chief operating officer Lee Bagnall says: “Understanding sales and staff forecasting for that is crucial and means that the week after Christmas is pretty much blocked out for staff holidays”.

But the shift to true Sale has to be subtle for most retailers. “A good clearance plan is one that the customer doesn’t notice,” says Barford. “As you start to sell through on key seasonal departments the trick is to manage that space so customers are not seeing a half empty trading floor and you are also able to cut back on seasonal departments while still creating space so that seasonal product is ready to move into it,” he says.

And once the stores are ready to go after closing on Christmas Eve, Hargreaves has one last welcome bit of advice: Go home.