March 12 2014 Latest news:
Wednesday, December 18, 2013
Business writer Stephen Pullinger joins the countdown to Christmas at Palmers department store and looks at how times are changing for a much-loved regional brand.
Even for a seasoned retail veteran like David Howard, who “loves selling”, it is the time of the year that has adrenaline coursing through his veins.
Christmas is as important to Palmers Department Stores today as it always has been and Mr Howard, who took over as managing-director in February last year, is poring over the trading figures hour by hour with his senior staff.
This is the busiest week and Saturday coming is likely to be the busiest day so each department is carefully monitored for any unforeseen dip.
“If there is a slow day, for example in cosmetics, we might change around the department and the emphasis of the displays or introduce a new promotion,” he said.
Planning the all-important festive window displays starts as early as February each year and, at the beginning of November, the magical Christmas transformation at Palmers’ flagship Yarmouth store and branches in Lowestoft, Dereham and Bury St Edmunds is carried out by the firm’s small visual merchandising team.
“That’s when Christmas really starts for us and my decorations go up the same time at home,” said Mr Howard.
“People in retail thrive on the busy festive season; the staff love it and queues of customers keep them motivated.”
Palmers’ chairman Bruce Sturrock, representing the fifth generation of the family who started the business 176 years ago, pointed out that despite all the changes taking place in retail, one constant was the volume of trade done in the Christmas and New Year sales period.
“Overall, about 40pc of our sales take place in the November, December, January period but in some areas, such as fragrances and cosmetics, it is as much as 60pc,” he said.
“While people might plan a special shopping trip to Lakeside or Bluewater in November, or pop into Norwich in early December our busy time comes after that - in our smaller stores like Dereham the very last days before Christmas.”
Taking account of Christmas shopping trends, less space is given over to certain areas, such as furniture and carpets, to make way for popular gifts.
“Gift food such as hampers is very popular this year, gift boxes are doing well and scented candles are very big,” said Mr Howard, who has worked all his career in independent department stores.
“Although the average spend is down, with gifts in the £15 to £20 range most popular; accessories such as scarves are going well.”
After a number of years where the recession has hit the high street hard, Palmers’ trading figures since the start of November have shown a heartening three per cent increase.
While some aspects of Christmas trading are constants - for example paying careful attention to stock and staffing levels - the growth of online sales is one significant change.
Mr Sturrock’s daughter Emma joined the firm two years ago to take charge of the online business and oversee the development of their palmerstores.com website.
Mr Sturrock said: “A company that is 176 years old has had to adapt to survive many times over and we are facing as challenging times now as ever before.”
He said there was no alternative but to develop their online offering - “it’s what customers expect”.
“In percentage terms it still only represents five per cent of sales; it is nothing like John Lewis but it is growing very rapidly,” he said.
“Online and in store is closely intertwined, for example some customers might go online and then come into the store for advice; they might then go home and buy online with their partner in the evening.”
Palmers currently focused online sales on linens, homeware and cookware but was gradually extending its range and had recently introduced shoes.
Mr Sturrock said online sales also surged in the Christmas build-up, but the peak came earlier in December.
“There is no rhyme or reason as to what sells well online at Christmas; we have been selling a lot of thermos flasks for some reason,” he said.
“Whether online or in store, we still pride ourselves on the quality of our service. On a lot of websites you can’t find a telephone number; ours is right up in front so customers can ring us.”
Adapting to the rapidly changing face of retailing has meant Palmers looking critically at what it sells in store.
Mr Sturrock said there had been a “massive structural change” in response to online taking more and more sales.
National retailers had cut back on their number of stores, concentrating on bigger shopping centres, and that had led to a void in towns like Yarmouth.
The challenge for Palmers was to fill that void, make their stores more attractive to customers, and give people a reason to continue shopping in market towns.
Mr Howard said as Yarmouth had lost such shops as Adams, Woolworth’s and Mothercare there was a “huge opportunity” to introduce children’s wear and toys and that was their plan in the Spring.
He said: “These lines are the most requested by our customers.”
They both emphasised that any changes would be sensitive to their existing customers and the trusted brand Palmers had established.
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