Ready-made Christmas foods are on the increase, appearing earlier and earlier each year in British supermarkets. But with consumers having to pay higher prices for convenience foods, Bernice Hurst asks whether a combination of tradition and convenience is the secret to a happy Christmas.

Not so many years ago, the first signs of Christmas in British supermarkets were end of aisle displays of vine and glacé fruit, nuts, marzipan, sugar and all the other ingredients needed for Christmas cakes, puddings and mincemeat. Soon afterwards, for those who didn’t want to start completely from scratch, the jars of mincemeat themselves arrived, in varying sizes, colours and luxurious content. Eventually, the cakes, puddings and mince pies, logs and stollen, gingerbread, panettone and other imported seasonal specialities appeared for those who preferred not to do any home baking at all.

This year, supermarkets seemed to skip directly to that final stage. As any traditionalist knows, Christmas cakes and puddings should be made as early as October to allow their flavours to develop. To prove they knew it as well, manufacturers started getting their products out there just at the time that 20th century housewives would have been embarking on their own preparations. 

Tradition with convenience

Moving right along into the 21st century, British supermarkets’ Christmas theme this year appeared to be “tradition with convenience”. Christmas 2002 demonstrated the sea change in supermarkets and the role they see themselves playing in feeding the public. From October onwards, displays have skipped food preparation and gone directly to food presentation. They have re-defined themselves as one-stop shops providing everything customers need for serving, entertaining and gift-giving.

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Food was not just for customers’ own consumption but for solving their gift problems. Shelves bulged beneath the weight of beautifully decorated packs and hampers designed to tantalise the tastebuds. What more loving gift could you give someone, they seemed to ask, than a delicious, and magnificently presented, selection of comestibles?

Some people surely prefer to devote time and energy to preparations, and certainly the essentials were available for those who wanted them. The chief difference was in the emphasis of the displays. Customers who enjoy cooking were undoubtedly catered for but were not as obviously targeted as in the past. Rather, higher spending customers seeking added value convenience products requiring little or no input were the more important target market.

Mix and match

Whether loose or packaged, there were promises of freshly cooked and prepared-to-order dishes designed to eliminate all the stress of trying to enjoy the day and feed guests simultaneously. No need to pore over recipes or search for ingredients, no need to brush up on your culinary skills, no need to pay exorbitant restaurant prices. Just let your favourite supermarket take the strain. For part of the meal, in any case. Mixing and matching was the perfect solution. Offer a wider selection of canapés than you could possibly have time to prepare, leaving you free to concentrate on the main course. Make sure you have an array of condiments, and perhaps cheeses and hand-raised pies, to accompany leftover turkey or ham or whatever on Boxing Day. Delight friends and family with desserts and confectionery chock full of alcohol and exotic ingredients that you couldn’t otherwise afford or justify.

The Food and Drink Federation’s Christmas Food Factfile proclaimed that 10% of people cook Christmas dinner for more than ten people, seven million children leave mince pies for Father Christmas and, overall, £1.6bn (US$2.5bn) is spent on holiday food and drink. None of these figures take into account anticipated increased expenditure for 2002 on the items that will make the cook’s life more convenient but refer to the amount spent in 2001.

Research conducted by Taylor Nelson Sofres for Switch and Maestro revealed that 16% of the 1001 consumers surveyed at random expected to spend between £100 and £124 this year on food. Again, no differentiation was made for spending on ingredients versus convenience or prepared foods.

It is now pretty much a given throughout the grocery and food manufacturing industry that adding convenience equates to adding value, right across the supply chain. Comparing year-on-year figures when in one year customers were buying the ingredients to bake their own cakes and boil their own puddings with a subsequent year in which they buy them ready to serve, can make a hefty difference to the bottom line.

The secret to a happy Christmas

Mixing and matching prepared dishes and those you can cook yourself is de rigeur. Anything to ensure that the exercise is as painless as possible. Both Waitrose and Tesco produced lavishly photographed magazines combining products they sell with recipes you can follow, once you have purchased ingredients that they sell.

Both provided shortcuts and mix ’n match routines aplenty. “Christmas is busy enough as it is, so don’t be afraid to cheat a bit here and there. Ready-made canapés don’t cost much more than homemade versions, and just think of all the time and hassle you’ll save,” said Tesco. Waitrose, on the other hand, announced “the secret to a happy Christmas is…sticking to the traditions…but making them easier.” As an example, instructions for tree cookies from the recipe database suggest starting with ready-made cookie dough before decorating according to the recipe.

Sainsbury’s website not only had its own Countdown to Christmas pointers but also links to their friend Delia Smith’s website and her Christmas Countdown package. From the former you could dial-a-turkey, “take the hassle out of shopping for gifts”, work your way through an “invaluable checklist” for ensuring that no chore gets neglected, as well as ordering each and every one of the ingredients you needed to make the holiday perfect. The latter was promoted as a way of taking the worry and hassle out of planning for Christmas, promising “advice, re-assurance and inspiration” not to mention ways to cheat and find shortcuts.

There is little doubt that the days when Mum was stuck in the kitchen for most of Christmas day are long gone. The only question is whether the increased cost of her freedom added sufficient value. When 2002 expenditure figures are revealed, a few footnotes to explain the reason for the bottom line increases will be needed in order to put the whole season into perspective.