Last year, department store Harrods opened its Christmas World department on July 26th, a mere 151 days before the big day.
Knightsbridge may have been sizzling in the Olympic summer heat when Harrods’ Santa donned his beard for a spot of ho-ho-ho-ing, but the store had its eye fixed firmly on the festive season.
While some may have recoiled at the move in mock horror, for retailers up and down the land it should be read as an example of savvy and smart retail thinking.
The UK has, for some years, been a hotspot for international shoppers, particularly over the Christmas period. So it makes perfect sense to start selling Christmas products earlier than usual to meet demand from consumers who are on holiday in the UK. But are retailers really ready?
This year is set to be a bumper year for tourism spend in the UK. Research last month by VisitBritain, the tourism body, showed that this year Britain is on track to record its best ever year for inbound spend.
In the first eight months of 2013, overseas visitors have spent £13.7 billion in the UK, some 11% up on the same period in 2012. And with the Christmas shopping period now in full swing that figure is expected to grow significantly, possibly reaching an all-time high of £20 billion.
But are UK retailers ready for the surge of foreign shoppers? Harrods, with its established brand name and fount of resources, is well-placed to roll out a fully-fledged Christmas operation. For mid-size firms, this might not be the case – but there is still plenty that they can do.
Christmas retail staff
Any retailer knows that when it comes to shopping, communication is key. It is crucial that companies ensure they offer international customers accurate information in their own languages – whether that be through online content or shop-floor staff with a good grasp of languages.
But according to research by recruitment firm Antal, shops in London and other major cities may lose out on a potential boom in business this Christmas due to a shortage of Mandarin and Cantonese speakers.
“Chinese tourists represent a significant source of business for retailers in the luxury goods sector and, increasingly, they expect to be met by a sales specialist with a clear grasp of their native language,” said Liz Dillon, Antal partner.
Think digital too
Outside of the bricks-and-mortar sphere, companies are also ramping up their efforts to attract international ecommerce trade. In fact, a quarter of UK SMEs expect to boost their revenues this Christmas by meeting international demand for British goods, recent research by PayPal suggests.
Separate research from the firm shows that the UK is the second-most-popular online shopping destination for buyers in China, the US, Germany, Australia and Brazil. Collectively, shoppers from this group are projected to spend more than £10 billion on UK goods in 2013. The importance of correct translations on internationally-trading websites could not be clearer.
“Overseas online sales could be a big win for businesses this Christmas,” said PayPal’s Mark Brant, “providing access to new customers without the hassle of setting up physical shops overseas.”
Not just London
It is not just London-based retailers who should be prepping to manage the demands in the number of international visitors over Christmas. While London continues to be a tourist hotspot, it is important to recognise that other areas of the UK are attracting visitors too.
Earlier this year for example, Yorkshire was named Europe’s Leading Destination for 2013. According to tourism body Welcome to Yorkshire, tourism is worth about £7 billion annually to the county, with 216 million visits made each year.
Accommodating international shoppers takes time and effort, but the rewards are high. Customers who are met with multilingual staff and experience well translated website content will develop trust in a brand. To maintain a competitive edge, retailers need to ensure that they are putting formal international consumer strategies in place, whether that’s by recruiting seasonal workers or embarking on a multi-lingual content marketing strategy.
If businesses are unsure which approach to take, the answer might be to offer both, and use 2013 as a platform for growth.