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Retail Think Tank

How can retailers exploit seasonal events more fully and plan for them better?

May 2017


Seasonal events have long been used by retailers as an opportunity to boost sales. Indeed, Paul Martin, UK Head of Retail at KPMG, pointed to the substantial growth in UK retail over the past decade – from £286bn in 2006 to £360bn in 2016 – and suggested that events-based retail “…surely plays a part in this growth story”.

That said, Paul Martin and the wider KPMG/Ipsos Retail Think Tank (RTT) also acknowledged the decline in annual retail growth in more recent years – from 1.6% in 2015 to 1.2% in 2016.

Reflecting upon this decline, the RTT members (who met on 11 April 2017) questioned whether retailers were perhaps struggling to exploit seasonal events fully or if they could plan for them better.

Why might events-based retail be losing traction and what can retailers do?

Today’s retail landscape is filled with a myriad of events, ranging from the more traditional and religious – like Easter, Valentine’s Day or Halloween – to more ‘manufactured’ newcomers, like Black Friday, China Singles Day or Amazon Prime Day. Of course, some of these mark public holidays – which increase leisure time and boost sales – whilst others rely solely on promotional or themed activity. Either way, the list of retail events today is seemingly endless.

Dr Tim Denison, Director of Retail Intelligence at Ipsos Retail Performance, suggested that whilst at one time these events represented a convenient yearly hook for retailers to run themed promotions, boost sales and increase footfall, today their impact has become less marked. He added: “…store and online promotions are now two-a-penny, events have become too staged and seasonal goods seem to be sold for longer and longer periods”.

The wider RTT members mirrored these thoughts, with Paul Martin adding that “…these events used to be highly anticipated by retailers and consumers alike, [but] in today’s always-on world, this magic has started to fade away”.

According to Mike Watkins, Head of Retailer and Business Insight at Nielsen UK, today’s consumer has become accustomed to promotions. Indeed he pointed to Nielsen’s research that illustrated that: ”savvy shopping is now the norm and saving money on everyday essentials is no longer just a coping strategy for when prices rise or incomes fall, but a planned way to pay for indulgences and incremental spend for celebrations”.

This heavy and prolonged discounting by retailers – now a by-product of changes in consumer behaviour – has also endangered a retailer’s ability to charge full price. Looking at Black Friday, which only arrived in the UK in 2014, big questions remain around whether these events cannibalise everyday trading and full price sales.

As a means to regain traction in events-based retail, advance planning and the duration of events were common themes among the RTT members.  Tim Denison suggested that: “…limiting the time window in which calendar events merchandise is sold is one way to re-inject interest and bring back the special nature and impact of promotions”. He pointed to supermarkets wasting no time in replacing Christmas confectionary with Easter eggs, as a prime example of how extended promotion dampens the special nature of seasonal items.

Conversely, planning too far in advance raised its own issues too. Martin Hayward, Founder of Hayward Strategy and Futures, said: “The challenge for many retailers is that their promotional activity is scheduled months in advance and centrally controlled, giving little leeway for local spontaneous activity and therefore creating a rather dull and very predictable event calendar”.

Indeed, it was innovation, imagination and an emotional connection with customers that many RTT members flagged as the main avenue for reinvigorating growth from retail events. In order for events-based retail to be successful, the key is promotional “saliency” and “resonance” with shoppers and their lives.

Personalisation and regionalisation are both means of achieving more engagement among customers.  Stepping away from the rigid and predictable events calendar, Martin Hayward suggested that: “…there is ample opportunity to be more imaginative around the creation of other smaller events to create excitement, news and footfall at an otherwise quiet time of the year”. Similarly, other RTT members suggested that retailers should look beyond simply marking pagan or religious festivals by crafting celebratory promotions around more regional events.

Continuing with the personalisation and regionalisation, Jonathan De Mello, Head of Retail Consultancy at Harper Dennis Hobbs, suggested: “…retailers that do not have a considerable physical presence should strongly consider pop-ups in order to capitalise on this increased demand [created by holiday periods]”.

In a similar vein, James Sawley, Head of Retail & Leisure at HSBC, said that retailers who were most successful at capitalising on seasonal events were those: “…whose supply chains allowed them to test and repeat orders to stay on top of changing trends, and those who use data science to personalise products and offers”.

The RTT members stressed that online retail must not be overlooked when considering how best to gain traction. Martin Newman, Chairman of Practicology, suggested that having a single view of inventory would allow retailers to react more quickly to sudden changes in customer demand – whether it be the weather, a football team’s performance in a major competition, or a surprise promotion by a key competitor.

What, if anything, can retailers learn from this year’s late Easter?

Putting events-based retail further under the microscope, the RTT members chose to look at what retailers could learn from this year’s Easter, starting first and foremost with the impact of its timing.

Whilst some events occur on the same day each year, the timing of Easter is dependent upon the lunar cycle and as such its date changes each year – occurring anytime between 22 March and 25 April. In fact, this year’s Easter was relatively late, occurring on Sunday 16 April.

With such a potential shift in Easter’s date, it clearly has the potential to cause a headache for retailers planning promotions or marketing. However, it also has the ability to distort retail performance, and this marked a major concern for the RTT members.

When the RTT members met, they reviewed the BRC-KPMG Retail Sales Monitor for the month of March 2017. It revealed that retail sales in the UK had decreased by 1% on a like-for-like (LFL) basis. The figures also revealed that over the three-months to March 2017, non-food retail sales in the UK declined by 1.1% LFL and 0.8% – the slowest 3-month total average growth since May 2011. Meanwhile, April retail performance marked a boost of 5.6% LFL – illustrating the size of the distortion caused by the movement of Easter.

The RTT members were in agreement that this illustrated the weaknesses in focusing on like-for-like analysis. Nick Bubb, Retail Consultant, added: “it is never helpful when Easter falls in calendar Q1 one year and calendar Q2 the next year”. Meanwhile, Martin Newman suggested that the “…[retail] industry remains obsessed with like-for-like sales figures”, adding that some retailers go as far as planning events at the same time each year in order to feed this metric.

Further illustrating the impact of this distortion Jonathan De Mello said that: “whilst many like to focus on Easter sales comparables, these…are nearly always distorted by the timing of the Easter weekend, [and] given Easter is solidly in April this year, some retailers may well report lower sales [as a result]”. James Sawley, raised the same issue and urged retailers to communicate with stakeholders effectively and perhaps even rethink how such like-for-like reporting is presented.

As a potential means to overcome this distortion, Nick Bubb suggested that retailers may find it more beneficial to compare their Easter trading figures to a year in which the event occurred on the same day – or 2006 in this year’s case. However, he also flagged that this wouldn’t account for the significant structural changes in retail over the past decade. Meanwhile, James Sawley, suggested that from a banker’s perspective: “…lenders tend to overlook short-term spending patterns and focus more on the underlying trends”.

The RTT members stressed that the weak retail performance in the first quarter of 2017 could not solely be attributed to the later occurrence of Easter. James Knightley, Senior UK Economist at ING, pointed to the underlying economic issues, including the sharp rise in inflation – reflected in higher food and fuel prices – as well as weakened wage growth, squeezing consumer spending further.

Crucially, the members discussed the importance of exercising caution when interpreting like-for-like retail performance and stressed that retailers must not overlook the broader retail environment, by focussing too heavily on the timing of a seasonal event and its impact. Referring to the UK’s current weaker retail activity, James Knightley added: “This may well be partly Easter related, but it is very hard to disaggregate it from underlying economic issues”.

Pulling the broader economic and political landscape further into focus, Nick Bubb pointed to the similar discontinuity that occurred during the financial crisis of 2008/09, when Easter Sunday fell on 23 March in 2008 and 12 April in 2009. He said: “this made the underlying trading trends hard to read, although the direction of travel then was painfully obvious”. He went on to add that much of the focus now is on how the UK post-Brexit economy is faring, but those reading retail performance figures need to be mindful of both the level of significance placed upon them and the level of distortion they may contain.

Distortion aside, the RTT members also highlighted the benefits of this year’s relatively late Easter and what retailers might be able to learn from it. Maureen Hinton at GlobalData suggested that: “with Easter falling in mid-April this year, it is far more likely to be at least sunny, if not warm, encouraging [consumers] to spend on the home and garden”. So for some categories, it could mark an opportunity.

Jonathan De Mello flagged that: “…careful forward planning is key in advance of any popular holiday”, however the RTT members also pointed to the importance of remaining responsive to external factors, including the weather.

Indeed, whether early or late, the members broadly agreed that the success of Easter sales would be driven by a retailer’s agility and ability to remain relevant to its customers. James Sawley added that: “…seasonal variances in consumer taste, fashion trends and of course, the weather, can often mean a hit or a miss for retailer’s fortunes and can make or break their year”.


Whilst retail growth has lost traction in recent years, the RTT members agreed that events-based retail would continue to play a vital role in achieving growth. Maureen Hinton, suggested that: “As time has progressed and the retail sector in the UK has matured, events and occasion have become ever more essential to encourage consumers to spend that bit extra retailers need to drive growth”.

Many of the members highlighted that this was particularly poignant when considering the variety of strong economic headwinds facing the retail sector more broadly.

Successful events-based retail will be driven primarily by: a retailer’s agility and ability to react to the external environment; the flexibility of its supply chain, and of course it’s relevance and resonance with customers. Moreover, the latter could be enhanced by regionalisation and personalisation, as well as a more innovative approach to events that seeks to create a better emotional connection with today’s consumers.

Summarising the sense of opportunity, Martin Hayward concluded that: “Against a backdrop of home delivery, self-scanning and on-line interactions there is a huge opportunity for retailers to make more of this fundamental need to share and engage amongst consumers, to create some fun and interest.”

Part II: In detail – individual views of the KPMG/Ipsos Retail Performance Think Tank members

James Knightley, Senior UK Economist, ING

The UK has seen weaker retail activity in the early part of the year, but it is not alone. The US has experienced some very disappointing consumer spending numbers while German annual retail sales growth is at its lowest in four years. This may well be partly Easter related, but it is very hard to disaggregate it from underlying economic issues.

Inflation has been rising sharply in developed markets in recent months, reflecting higher food and fuel prices, whilst in the UK the trend is given added impetus by sterling’s Brexit-related plunge making the cost of imports more expensive. There is growing evidence that these cost increases are being passed onto consumers.

Wage growth has also weakened so that both UK wages and prices are currently increasing 2.3%YoY. In the months ahead, prices are likely to rise faster than wages, and survey evidence suggests households are already braced for this. Consequently, this squeeze on spending power may already be translating into lower retail activity. Political uncertainty might also be a factor given the build-up to, and then the actual triggering of, Article 50.

Nonetheless, when Easter falls does impact spending patterns. A long weekend means more leisure time, which creates more opportunity for shopping. The later it falls the better the chances of more pleasant weather, which can help kick start sales on new season products. Consequently, this year’s late Easter – contrasting with last year’s early Easter – is a factor that will affect the annual rate of growth. However, what the weather does could still influence how “successful” Easter will be.

In terms of planning better for the seasonal events, the main driver of spending remains confidence and how much cash consumers have in their pockets. Given the uncertainty the country faces over the next couple of years and the likely squeeze on spending power, these are key issues retailers have to take account of.

The attitude of consumers may increasingly shift – would they rather spend their money on what they regard as more of a long lasting purchase, rather than discounted items suitable only for a short time? Promotions may be less appealing if consumers regard their spending as being less frivolous and more considered in a tougher economic environment.

Dr Tim Denison, Director of Retail Intelligence – Ipsos Retail Performance

Annual calendar events marking occasions such as Valentine’s Day, Mothering Sunday, Bonfire Night and Halloween used to regularly boost store traffic and sales by 6-8% a decade or so ago. They represented convenient yearly hooks for retailers for themed promotions. Their impact has become less marked more recently. There are obvious reasons for this. First off, store and on-line promotions are now two-a-penny rather than attached to occasional, sporadic events. Secondly, events have become too staged. Thirdly, seasonal goods seem to be sold for longer and longer periods. You know Christmas is over nowadays when the supermarkets replace the confectionery stockings with Easter eggs! Hot-cross buns, once the preserve of Holy Week is now a staple item in the bread and cake aisles. You can’t blame the retailers because if we didn’t buy them all year round, they wouldn’t stock them 52 weeks a year.

Limiting the time window in which calendar event merchandise is sold is one way to re-inject interest and bring back the special nature and impact of such promotions. Modern day retailing is well equipped to deliver profitable, short, sharp campaigns of this type thanks to shortening supply chains, more diversified sourcing and more agile systems, so there’s nothing to stop compressing promotions. Equally, there’s no reason for marking just national pagan or religion-based festivals, given their greater supply flexibility. At a time when both ‘provenance’ and ‘local’ are high up on the shoppers’ agenda, what’s to stop retailers in Gloucestershire from crafting impactful celebratory promotions around Cooper’s Hill cheese-rolling on Spring Bank holiday weekend and personalising the event?

The key to success is promotional saliency and resonance with shoppers in their lives. The likes of Black Friday or Single’s Day are all very well, but we all know that they have been manufactured by retailers to stimulate sales rather than celebrate specific occasions. I doubt they will still be effective at peddling wares in centuries to come.

Customers want to be stimulated by exciting, ephemeral, easier experiences in which goods that are here today will be gone tomorrow. Pop-up shops and calendar events are an obvious marriage. Debenhams should be congratulated for its recent trial of a drive-through gift service outside its Trafford Centre store on Valentine ’s Day. It’s response has helped make it easier to find that ideal gift.

Nor too should the digital world and omnichannel be omitted from the quest to breathe new life into seasonal events. This month Walmart, for example, has used SnapChat to promote its Easter specials such as exclusive Lego goods and YouTube to provide “how to” guides on building Easter baskets in the States. No doubt others will be following suit.

And perhaps the final ingredient to a successful seasonal promotion is to capture the shopper’s imagination through fun. I fully expect to see some English entrepreneurial retail wit to be exercised in time to come around 23rd April, with St George butting up against Brexit, though time will tell whether St. David and St. Andrew get in on the act.

Paul Martin, Head of Retail – KPMG

The annual retail calendar is becoming increasingly crowded with special events. Over and above traditional festivities including Christmas, Easter and Mother’s Day, newer special occasions such as Black Friday or even “Prime Day” have cemented their place in many UK retailer’s diaries over the last few years.

In the past, these events used to be highly anticipated by retailers and consumers alike. For example, Boxing Day sales in the UK were once something special. However, in today’s ‘always-on’ world this magic has started to fade away, with retailers expecting some form of sale most of the year round.

The UK retail sector has grown considerably over the last decade, from £286bn in 2006 to approximately £360bn in 2016, and the increase of events-based retailing has surely played a part in this growth story. Take Easter for instance; in 2016 Kantar estimated that £152m of grocery sales were added to our weekly shop when compared to the same week in 2015.

However, there is another side to the coin. Annual retail sales growth had declined from 1.6% per annum in 2015 to 1.2% in 2016, and growth in 2017 is forecast at 0.5%. There is increasing evidence to suggest that consumers are moving parts of their discretionary spend towards experiences instead of the demand for products, which is placing further pressure on a sector that is already facing multiple headwinds in form of increased input costs.

Events like Black Friday, which only arrived in the UK in 2014, divide opinions. It has grown in scale year-on-year. In 2016, the event delivered approximately £2bn on the day and nearly £6bn over the course of the Black Friday weekend (which extends to include Cyber Monday). However, big questions remain; are these events cannibalising every day trading and more importantly, and do they cannibalise full price sales?

We regularly read the headline figures outlining how much is being added to a retailer’s top-line sales, meanwhile the profitability of these events is rarely reported. Increasingly many retail businesses are planning in advance and improving the management of margins for specific events. However overall profitability remains a cause for concern. The rise in promotional events, combined with the proven cannibalisation these have on overall trading, will likely continue to place further pressure on profitability.

Martin Hayward, Founder – Hayward Strategy and Futures

There is something very reassuring about the continuing need and desire for consumers to share events and experiences at a time when the world of marketing is fixated with a drive towards personalisation and efficient, yet anonymous, digital interactions.

Against this backdrop of home delivery, self-scanning and online interaction, there is a huge opportunity for retailers to make more of this fundamental need to share and engage amongst consumers, to create some fun and interest.

The traditional seasonal events are already well served by most retailers, but there is ample opportunity to be more imaginative around the creation of other smaller events to create excitement, news and footfall at otherwise quiet times of the year.

This ‘Occasionisation’ opportunity doesn’t necessarily require special stock or expensive promotion, but relies more on local management responding to opportunities that appeal to their catchment in creative ways.

There are interesting examples in other categories that can be learnt from. For instance, the media channels have become very good at creating viewing events around genres of film e.g. ‘Horror weekend’, or seasons e.g. Springwatch. Your local pub probably runs promotions around sports events and days of the week e.g. Prosecco Thursdays, and the bookmakers are very good at seizing on newsworthy issues to create a market, such as Paddy Power and their new Donald Trump betting specials.

The challenge for many retailers is that their promotional activity is scheduled months in advance and centrally controlled, giving little leeway for local spontaneous activity and therefore creating a rather dull and very predictable event calendar. It’s unlikely that every branch of a chain retailer has the same catchment and customer profile, but they all tend to run the same promotions at the same times. A lot of the intelligence of retailing has been centralised and needs to be re-distributed to local managers to respond to their own environment. If it’s sunny and hot in March in your area, then respond with relevant offers; if the local town is having an event, join in.

There is a big opportunity gap between centrally managed big scale activity and data driven personalisation that will only be filled if local managers are given the power to market locally and tactically.

Maureen Hinton, GlobalData

As time has progressed and the retail sector in the UK has matured, events and occasions have become ever more essential to encourage consumers to spend that bit extra retailers need to drive growth.  Grocers are the major winners because food plays such a big part in most traditional events. These provide an opportunity to socialise with family and friends, and grocers use their expanding non-food offers to supply the gifts and periphery products we want for these occasions.

Traditionally Q4, and in particular December, has created the peak in retailers’ annual sales because of Christmas. However, more recently this has begun to be eclipsed by Black Friday – a seasonal event created for retailers by retailers. This is a trend that is growing – whereby retailers are generating new events.  Amazon created its Prime Day; Alibaba high jacked the event created by Chinese university students, and turned Singles Day on November 11th into a major global online shopping festival, raking in $18bn in just one day last year. Meanwhile UK retailers have been importing American events such as Halloween and Prom dances to give consumers a new reason to spend.

One benefit of these retailer-made events is that they fall at a fixed time, the same as Christmas and Valentine’s Day, so are easier to place in the overall buying, merchandising and marketing plan,. However, traditional events based on the lunar year and religious calendars, such as Easter and Mother’s day fluctuate each year. This is a particular problem with Easter because it is the big annual event for DIY & gardening retailers and the weather is crucial.  If it is cold and raining people stay indoors; while a warm, sunny Easter encourages us to think about using the garden and starting DIY projects. With Easter falling in mid-April this year, it is far more likely to be at least sunny, if not warm, encouraging us to spend on the home and garden.

As far as exploiting existing seasonal events more fully and planning for them better, retailers need to not only monitor their own performance each year, but also take account of both their competitors’ performances and promotions. They also need to consider the general context for consumers – not just the weather but also any likely changes in their spending trends – and then consider what new events they can create.

Chart: Would new gifting occasions would you like to see? (All figures are percentages)



Source: GlobalData Retail

Martin Newman, CEO – Practicology

Though it falls on a different day each year, Easter is a diarised event. Retailers can match supply to anticipated demand whether it falls in March or April. So why the fuss?

Unfortunately, the industry remains obsessed with like-for-like sales figures. This leads some retailers to build marketing and promotional calendars where similar activity occurs in the same week every year, in order to feed the LFL metric. Underwear is always on promotion in week 12, and skincare in week 21, for example. Easter inconveniently interrupts such neat plans.

However, I’d argue that omnichannel retailers with significant online sales can’t be properly assessed based on like-for-likes. It’s an effective performance indicator when you measure your selling channel in square feet, but not so much when you have a constantly evolving multichannel proposition (as many High Street retailers do).

Driving this metric above others when 25-50% of your sales are online may well be a flawed strategy.

In any case, how do you account for the impact of refurbished stores? The cannibalisation of sales from other stores that were added to the portfolio, or changes in range architecture and the migration of some customers to the web?

Total sales, and more importantly profit, remain the end game; but underlying measures of current and future performance could be the number of active registered online customers, or number of customers who make purchases through multiple channels (who tend to have a higher lifetime value).  Moreover, as retailers look to defend against the threat of Amazon, Alibaba, other marketplaces and new entrants, customer satisfaction has to be just about the most important metric to measure.

When the vast majority of sales are offline, and stock needs to be pushed out to stores, it makes sense for such events to be planned far in advance for operational efficiency reasons too. But with online stock held centrally, retailers can react to suddenly changing customer demand due to factors outside of their control; such as the weather, the England football team’s performance in a major competition or a surprise promotion by a key competitor.

This tactical activity should be taking place as part of any effective online trading strategy, and irrespective of seasonal events.

UK retailers could also learn a lesson from Amazon, who seem to be doing everything it can to break free of the constraints of traditional seasonal events. It was one of the US retailers who imported the concept of Black Friday, tearing up the rules of peak trading; and has quickly morphed this into a week of deals to stay a step ahead of the competition.

More recently it devised Prime Day to gain headlines, drive take-up of Prime memberships and sell customers discounted items that they never knew they needed. Yes, Amazon will no doubt measure the sales success of its next Prime Day against last year’s, but I’d wager that the column inches and Prime sign-ups (that aren’t cancelled before they convert to paying subscriptions) are just as important when it analyses the results.

Mike Watkins, Head of Retailer and Business Insight – Nielsen UK

Last year there was a modest recovery in food retail sales and a 1.1% top-line growth. However, the supermarket recovery was shallow and most of this growth was driven by the discounters of Aldi and Lidl, who captured more of the regular weekly shop. This helped propel them to another year of double digit growth.

In contrast, supermarkets had lower growth as they adapted to a shift in sales away from big stores to online and to small stores, and from larger baskets to smaller baskets.

Nielsen research shows that savvy shopping is the norm and saving money on everyday essentials is no longer just a coping strategy for when prices rise or incomes fall, but a planned way to pay for indulgences and incremental spend for celebrations. This will continue even if shoppers become more cautious about spending as it’s a lifestyle trend.

Shoppers visit food stores 3 or 4 times a week and 85% of these visits are to buy less than 20 items. (Nielsen Homescan). More of these baskets now include seasonal or event purchases and shoppers are exploring new channels and different retailers.

Strategies are evolving and there is now less reliance on short-term promotions to drive everyday category spend. Instead we are seeing events being campaigned and better coordinated throughout the year. Seasonal food, drink and gifting ranges are being extended and there is more in store theatre.

For the major supermarkets this will mean being less reliant on the big weekly shop and instead using events to give shoppers a compelling reason to return and to shop more often, and highlighting the breadth of range that is not available at a Discounter.

So shopping behaviour has changed. Future growth is going to come from exploiting the `little and often` shopping trend, from product innovation, by offering more food to go, by extending into food service and from maximising sales during seasonal events.

The way to achieve sustainable and profitable growth is to fulfil these mission based shopping trips with different ranges, better use of space in store and new store formats.

Jonathan De Mello, Head of Retail Consultancy – Harper Dennis Hobbs

Whilst many like to focus on Easter sales comparables, these comparables are nearly always distorted by the timing of the Easter weekend. Given Easter is solidly in April this year, some retailers may well report lower sales comparables, but it is the longer term prospects for UK retail – and the recent spate of administrations and CVA’s we have seen – that is more concerning.

Careful forward planning is key in advance of any popular holiday period, and given a fairly expansive half term break for many families over Easter, the retailers that will perform strongly will be the ones that have bought and merchandised well in advance, to better convert the increased footfall. Given the increasing importance of Easter and seasonal events in general, retailers that do not have a considerable physical presence should strongly consider pop-ups in order to capitalise on this increased demand – both in terms of securing revenue but also to build brand equity. Transport hubs are becoming more and more important in this sense, and new retail developments in places like Kings Cross and London Waterloo – and Birmingham’s Grand Central last year – have been designed with this trend in mind.

Given the current retail climate – with both increased business rates for many and a weak pound – some retailers will likely be planning CVA’s or looking to downsize the number of ‘doors’ they have. It is unlikely we will see further CVA’s or administrations prior to Easter given the potential to bring further cash into the business, but there is a strong likelihood that at least a couple of retailers will do so once Easter is over, or at April month end. Property owners are currently in talks with quite a number of retailers seeking rent reductions, extended rent free periods etc. If amicable agreement is not reached then some retailers may well choose to go down the CVA route post-Easter. As morally dubious as it is, for some retailer it is literally a question of do, or die.

Nick Bubb, Retail Consultant

Religious festivals come and go in terms of importance and Easter, as a religious festival in the UK is not what it was. However, it remains an important seasonal event because it coincides with the school holidays and the two Bank Holidays either side of the Easter Weekend (Good Friday and Easter Monday) create opportunities for spring and summer merchandise to be promoted by retailers. When people have spare time, they tend to go shopping.

Unfortunately, the date of Easter shifts with lunar cycle and Easter Sunday can therefore be any time between March 22 and April 25. This year Easter Sunday is relatively late, on April 16th, although not as late as it can be: in 2000 and 2011, the May Day Bank Holiday was just one week after Easter Monday, causing there to be 3 consecutive weeks with a Bank Holiday.

Valentine’s Day is always on 14 Feb, but other dates shift with the date of Easter – e.g. Mother’s Day (or Mothering Sunday) is fixed 3 weeks before Easter Sunday and that has also become an important gifting event for retailers to respond to.

As it happens, Mothering Sunday and Easter Sunday are both about 3 weeks later this year than last year, which has caused the usual havoc with reading short-term trading trends.

In the course of events, these calendar distortions obviously even out, but it is never helpful when Easter falls in calendar Q1 one year and calendar Q2 the next year, as has happened in 2016 and 2017. And it is not at all helpful when there is so much focus on how the post-Brexit UK economy and the UK shopper are bearing up after the fateful triggering of Article 50 on March 29th.

Interestingly, there was a similar discontinuity in 2008-2009 during the financial crisis, with Easter Sunday falling on March 23rd in 2008 and April 12th in 2009, which made the underlying trading trends hard to read, although the direction of travel then was painfully obvious.

The loss of Easter trade in March shows up in the weak BRC-KPMG Retail sales figures for that month and those 2 great barometers of the High Street, John Lewis and Waitrose are also reporting weak sales figures in recent weeks: both were running down about 2% LFL over the 9 weeks to April 1st and both will be hoping that by the end of April the cumulative LFL sales picture for fiscal Q1 will have improved by a point or so.

Fortunately, a later Easter is usually better for retailers than an early Easter, although much depends on the weather. A warm and sunny Easter should classically drive good sales of garden furniture, barbecues and lawnmowers, as shoppers get into the mood of spring and outdoor living again.

Retailers can have no complaints with the benign weather in early April, but whether the fine weather holds through until Easter itself remains to be seen and retailers will be wary of seeing too much business pulled forward from later in the season, as spending seems to be increasingly “for the moment” and weather-sensitive

Retailers can use their trading figures from 2006 (which is when Easter Sunday was last on April 16th) to budget for Easter 2017, but the whole structure of retailing now is different from 2006, let alone 2016, so we must wish the much-maligned Office of National Statistics luck with its “seasonal adjustments” for March and April Retail Sales.

Moving on, there will be other seasonal events and religious festivals this year to shake consumers out of their post-Brexit despond, with Eid in September and Halloween at the end of October some examples that retailers can exploit better, although (as with Christmas itself) there are dangers in launching seasonal promotions too early (leading to shopper fatigue). In this online shopping world, there are also dangers in letting consumers down with deliveries going awry: woe betide the retailer who messed up the delivery of that precious present for Mothering Sunday.

If judging sales trends in 2017 has been hard, there is always 2018…when Easter Sunday moves forward by a couple of weeks or so, to April 1. Let’s hope Easter 2018 doesn’t turn out to be an April “Fool” for UK retailers.

James Sawley, Head of Retail & Leisure, HSBC

From a banker’s perspective, the noise created when the timing of seasonal holidays distorts industry data is generally unwelcome. Lenders tend to overlook short-term spending patterns and focus on underlying trends. Irrespective of what month Easter falls in, consumers will be out buying gifts and chocolate, therefore when analysing data we find using 3-month rolling average numbers as a much more helpful gauge as to the long term trends within the industry.

At a company level, assessing retailers exposed to seasonal consumer spending involves a bit more due diligence. Seasonal variances in consumer taste, fashion trends and of course….the weather!….can often mean a hit or a miss for the retailer’s fortunes and can make or break their year. Banks like to see conservative assumptions underpinning business plans when analysing businesses which are more exposed to fast moving trends and short term seasonal shifts.

In 2017 we have a late Mother’s Day and an Easter falling out of March and into April. This will have the most material business impact on those companies with a FY March 17 Year End, especially where audited numbers drive ratings at Lenders and Credit Insurers. Where these distortions exist, I would urge retailers to communicate effectively with stakeholders and perhaps rethink how like-for-likes are presented.

The retailers I come across who are most successful at capitalising upon seasonal events are those whose supply chains allows them to test and repeat orders to stay on top of changing trends, and those who use data science to personalise products and offers. Fundamentally though, seasonal events are a cause for joy and celebration with family and friends. If companies can connect emotionally with consumers on this level, they’re onto a winner!



Members of the RTT are:

  • Nick Bubb – Retail Consultant
  • Tim Denison – Ipsos Retail Performance
  • Martin Hayward – Hayward Strategy and Futures
  • James Knightley – ING
  • James Sawley – HSBC
  • David McCorquodale – KPMG
  • Maureen Hinton – Verdict Retail
  • Mike Watkins – Nielsen UK
  • Martin Newman – Practicology
  • Jonathan De Mello – Harper Dennis Hobbs

The intellectual property within the RTT is jointly owned by KPMG ( and Ipsos Retail Performance.

First mentions of the Retail Think Tank should be as follows: the KPMG/Ipsos Retail Think Tank. The abbreviations Retail Think Tank and RTT are acceptable thereafter.

The RTT was founded by KPMG and Ipsos Retail Performance (formerly Synovate) in February 2006. It now meets quarterly to provide authoritative ‘thought leadership’ on matters affecting the retail industry. All outputs are consensual and arrived at by simple majority vote and moderated discussion. Quotes are individually credited.  The Retail Think Tank has been created because it is widely accepted that there are so many mixed messages from different data sources that it is difficult to establish with any certainty the true health and status of the sector.  The aim of the RTT is to provide the authoritative, credible and most trusted window on what is really happening in retail and to develop thought leadership on the key areas influencing the future of retailing in the UK. Its executive members have been rigorously selected from non-aligned disciplines to highlight issues, propose solutions, learn from the past, signpost the road ahead and put retail into its rightful context within the British social/economic matrix.