Comment: 2012 trends emerge as UK retailers gear up for Christmas
By Katy Askew | 5 July 2012
Waitrose sets out its Christmas stall
What we will be planning to have for Christmas dinner is hardly likely to be foremost in most of our minds in July. However, the UK's retailers have been working on just this issue for months. And yesterday (5 July), three of the country's supermarkets - Tesco, Morrisons and Waitrose - unveiled their Christmas ranges in London. Katy Askew takes a quick look at some of the key trends to emerge.
Nothing says Christmas like a muggy July day. Walking down London's Regent Street with the multicoloured flags criss-crossing overhead as the capital gears up for the Olympics, Christmas could not have been further from the minds of the throng of shoppers.
It was somewhat surreal, then, to jump into an air conditioned Winter Wonderland where baubles adorned ornate sparking Christmas trees and tables were piled high with festive treats as Tesco unveiled its Christmas range.
One of the mainstays of Tesco's Christmas food offering is its party food range and this year the retailer's chilled party food line looks to have a decidedly international flavour.
The firm has taken inspiration from Spain, Asia and South America to develop a number of products, including tapas-style nibles or Tex-Mex quesadillas. These will sit alongside a more traditional offering - such as baked Camembert and mini-pies- in the retailer's top-selling party selection packs. This year, Tesco plans to add about 50 SKUs to its chilled party food line-up, the group's party food product developer tells just-food.
The group's Finest line appeals to "much more adventurous customers" while party foods offered under the Tesco brand represent the "core offering", the source says.
There is a traditional look to Tesco's dessert offering, which consists largely of Christmas cake, pudding, cupcakes and mince pies. Likewise, the meat offering is made up of the mainstays of a traditional Christmas dinner.
However, while consumers look for the familiar at this time of year, Tesco has looked to drive product development and add value without straying too far from the beaten path.
In order to achieve this, Tesco's team of product developers has identified a niche they say was relatively untapped last year: whole, ready-to-cook turkey. The firm will sell whole, stuffed birds complete with bacon lattice and butter rings.
These will be packaged in foil trays, ready to put in the oven. Tesco revealed it is also looking at using cooking bags, which have seen a huge increase in popularity. However, packaging for the product is still under development and the group's product developers are still mulling the merits of using this technology.
Waitrose, on the other hand, has already fully committed to offering whole birds in cooking bags this festive season. The upmarket retailer will be offering a ready to roast butter basted turkey with a sage and onion stuffing for GBP35.
Product developers at Waitrose say the supermarket had opted for cooking bags as they are a "more forgiving" method of cooking. The product is aimed at consumers seeking convenience on Christmas day without sacrificing results. It is also "ideal for less experienced cooks", the development team reveals.
The company will carry a number of other smaller RTC products, including a plumpie crown with apricot and orange stuffing, a mini-stuffed breast joint and the premium bronze dry aged breast and leg joints, which are hung for 5-7 days and then stuffed with pork and chestnut stuffing.
Waitrose has again teamed up with celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal for the group's Heston from Waitrose Christmas dessert offering.
A notable addition to the Heston line-up, which already includes the hidden orange Christmas pudding, is a modern take on the classic baked Alaska. With a raspberry parfait, encased in chocolate, surrounded by a banana parfait instead of ice cream, this baked Alaska might be a far cry from the dessert that reached the height of its popularity in the '70s and '80s.
Waitrose range of desserts has taken "glitter, sparkle and delight" as its theme and visually the group has developed some quite stunning products. It has also looked to merge tradition with a modern twist because "consumers look for the familiar and comforting" at this time of year.
Waitrose has introduced a variety of dessert "shots" such as champagne jelly, which appear modern and indulgent while tipping their hat to portion control. The group will also be bringing out a range of Fool Puddings - taking seasonal puddings like apple crumble and mixing them with a fool base. These will come out in the autumn and the line will be updated for Christmas.
Like Tesco, Waitrose has looked to Asia for inspiration in its party food range - with products including red Thai pork lollipops and sweet chilli chicken blinis.
At Morrisons' Christmas showcase, the Asian theme again proved a popular inspiration for the party food selection. The firm's M Kitchen chefs have developed a line of finger foods, including pearl batter prawns, chicken dim sum and duck cigars.
However, as you might expect given Morrisons' current direction, the UK's fourth-largest grocer has decided to focus its Christmas offering on products that emphasise the artisan credentials of its team of in-store bakers, butchers and fishmongers.
Martin Clayton, who heads up Morrisons bakery department, says the "hero" of Morrisons bakery this year would be the chocolate orange candy cane bread. This product has been in development since last Christmas, after Morrisons received customer feedback querying why speciality seasonal breads are "always fruit-based".
For those who like their Christmas breads fruity, however, Morrisons bakery will also carry a Christmas tree tear and share bread.
The bread will be prepared in-store each morning by Morriosns bakers - who will be working round the clock over the peak Christmas trading period, Clayton reveals.
However, he emphasises Morrisons "bread and butter" bakery business at this time of year remains its more basic range of baps, rolls and French breads. As consumers are feeling the pinch in the face of weak economic conditions, Clayton predicts they will look for "something different" with the speciality breads - but the group's biggest sellers are expected to be more basic products.
Likewise, Morrisons fish specialist Andrew Speight says value is at the heart of what the supermarket does in the fish department. In March, Morrisons announced it had purchased a seafood processing business and Speight says this will bring benefits not only in freshness and quality but also drive down costs. These savings, he tells just-food, will then be passed on to consumers.
Speight says consumers are often "wary" of fish and Morrisons is working to educate shoppers. Its fishmongers are trained in methods of cooking and preparing fish dishes and which wines or sides would be good accompaniments.
This is about more than upselling: through its knowledgeable staff Morrisons hopes to promote fish consumption and its sustainability agenda.
"Consumers will always want their cod or salmon, but by offering less available fish that are in season and having fishmongers on hand that can provide advice on how to handle them we hope to alter peoples' attitudes to fish," he says.
Speight says there is a lot in the pipeline for Morrisons' fish offering at the moment, including a uniquely fishy take on the classic "three bird roast".
Morrisons is also offering a variety of RTC Christmas products - including pre-stuffed turkey crowns and pre-made pigs in a blanket. The group is not introducing bake-in-the-bag style products and, one Morrisons insider suggests, the supermarket has been "a little slower than others" to adopt what is rapidly becoming a popular RTC packaging technology.
However, the company is now looking at developing its own cook-in-the-bag offering. "We have perhaps been a bit slow to bring this in, but we are working on creating something that is a little bit different and that is perhaps why it is taking a little bit longer," the source reveals.
Perhaps, then, we will be seeing more of this growing trend for 2013.
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Comment: 2012 trends emerge as UK retailers gear up for Christmas