Thursday 26 April 2018

Budget that put the jingle back into Christmas

After years of playing Scrooge, Michael Noonan this week decreed the coming festive season to be a bumper one. Are we getting carried away

Christmas shoppers on Grafton Street last November. Photo: Arthur Carron
Christmas shoppers on Grafton Street last November. Photo: Arthur Carron
Stephen Sealey, managing director at Brown Thomas
Deirdre Reynolds

Deirdre Reynolds

Jingle bells are once more set to ring at Irish checkouts this Christmas following one of the most gift-wrapped Budgets in a decade.

Single parents, pensioners and self-employed people are just some of those seemingly better off after a Budget that proved more nice than naughty this week.

Following years of Scroogenomics, now retailers here are hoping to feel the effects of Finance Minister Michael Noonan's Santa Claus-inspired give-away this festive season too.

Speaking to Review, Brown Thomas managing director Stephen Sealey said: "Consumer confidence has been climbing all year and I expect the Budget to give it another boost.

"We plan to launch our Christmas windows in early November after Halloween. But a lot of people have been picking up decorations and gifts in-store and online already.

"Last week, 'Christmas' was the number one searched term on our website and our Christmas shop took 10 times more money on the day it opened than last year."

Earlier this year, the luxury department store sparked controversy when it launched its festive market more than four months before December 25.

Two months later, as the first string of Christmas lights appeared in the capital this week, one Twitter user evidently still thought it was 'too soon', quipping: "Did they cut Halloween from #budget16?"

Restoring the social welfare Christmas bonus to 75pc, as well as boosting the old age pension by €3 and slashing the Universal Social Charge by up to 1.5pc, sure enough the season of goodwill appeared to arrive early at the Dáil on Tuesday.

"Over the last number of years, many cities have been putting on their lights a week to 10 days early in an attempt to stimulate Christmas trade and help customers to spread the cost over a longer period," explained retail advisor James Burke of James Burke & Associates.

"Traditionalists will argue there shouldn't be any Christmas stock in shops until Halloween is over. With the advent of online shopping though, nowadays Christmas product is available year round anyway. Online shopping has many perceived benefits, but I think we're going to see a shift back towards traditional Christmas shopping this year," he continued. "There's more of a feel-good factor.

"In some situations, the money is already there. One thing this budget will have done is to give people the confidence to let their belt out by even one notch this Christmas."

Retail Ireland went one notch further last week when it forecast the biggest Christmas in seven years for retailers around the country.

Ahead of the Retail Ireland Summit 2015 in Dublin, the Ibec group representing the sector predicted shoppers would drop around €4.05bn in stores this Christmas - 3.5pc more than last year.

Specifically, it estimated that the average household would splurge around €2,450 on core retail goods in December - about €600 more than any other month of the year.

"The fortunes of Irish retailers are finally on the up," told Thomas Burke, director of Retail Ireland. "Positive trends during the year and a budget that will put money back into the economy create a positive backdrop as we enter the crucial Christmas trading period."

As shopkeepers around the country gear up for their busiest December since 2008, Santa isn't the only one enlisting an army of helpers this Christmas.

Approximately 3,000 people are expected to apply for 500 seasonal vacancies including sales consultants and cashiers at Brown Thomas Dublin.

"Probably about 5-7 times the number of people we need [have applied]," BT boss Stephen Sealey revealed. "It's a good opportunity to move into retail and get experience in a luxury store.

"Quite often it's mothers who want to get back into the workplace or students who are looking for a bit of extra money before Christmas.

"People who do well stand a good chance of being made permanent. I know of at least two managers in this store who started out as Christmas temps."

Boots, Argos and Debenhams are just some of the other high street giants set to take on hundreds of extra Irish staff during the feverish festive period.

"Following this week's budget, we should all see a little extra in our pockets in January," said Safann Mac Carthy, marketing director of Jobs.ie. "I think it's fair to say this will be reflected in what we all hope is a bumper Christmas for everyone.

"Certainly it would seem that retailers are looking forward to a very good Christmas as there is a 25pc increase in jobs being advertised over the same time last year.

"Other industries that seem to get a sprinkle of Christmas magic include hotels, with 23pc year-over-year (YoY) jobs growth, pubs and bars, with 35pc YoY jobs growth, and restaurants and catering, with 41pc YoY jobs growth.

"Hairdressers and beauty salons have also increased the jobs they are advertising by 15pc over last year," she continued. "This is great news for anyone who wants to work in these industries, which all offer great opportunities for part-time or flexible working hours."

Free-range turkeys, handmade chocolates and designer pressies are just some of the luxury items retail expert James Burke expects to make a comeback to Irish homes this yuletide.

"People continued to gift in recent years, but that gifting changed in pattern," he said.

"Whether clothing or gifts, personal spend shifted from something that might have been quite elaborate to something more restrained, and maybe, where one purchased, that changed as well."

"On the consumer side, I think that's probably the biggest change we're going to see this year - a move back to more high-end retailers ­specialising in more prominent brands.

"Craft butchers and artisan chocolatiers are the type of businesses I expect to see doing well this Christmas," Burke added. "But a lot of it depends on the retailer themselves reminding customers about the product.

"No doubt there will be lots of promotional activity trying to woo customers."

At Bean and Goose Chocolate in Wexford, the festive frenzy has already begun for sisters Karen and Natalie Keane, whose handmade single origin chocolate will be available from Bord Bia's pop-up shop at 'I Believe' Christmas market at Dublin's IFSC next month, as well as 30 other independent retailers nationwide.

"From now until Christmas would be our busiest time," said Karen, who co-founded the Ferns-based company 18 months ago.

"Our most popular Christmas product would be 'A Winter's Bark', a 500g sharing slab of dark chocolate with roasted hazelnuts and organic cranberries which costs €28.50.

"Last year, we sold a few hundred - this year we're hoping to sell up to 1,000.

"We have a stall at Temple Bar Food Market each Saturday, and you can almost feel the optimism," she went on. "People are looking to spend again, but in a sensible way, and chocolate is seen as an affordable luxury.

"As a small Irish business, Christmas is vital for us. Any money we make for ourselves this year, we make between now and the New Year.

"Hopefully the Budget has given people the confidence to dip into their savings this Christmas."

With just 68 more 'sleeps' to go, back at the Brown Thomas winter wonderland, Stephen Sealey warned against putting the sleigh before the reindeer. "I think we should be a little bit careful about painting a picture of a 'bumper Christmas'," he cautioned.

"We hope it's going to be a strong Christmas, but I don't think the mad days of 2006/07 will ever come back.

"People have changed - the days of buying loads and loads of stuff are gone."

Despite prophesying the best Christmas for shops in years, Retail Ireland conceded festive figures would still be down around 12.2pc on the spendthrift days of 2007 - plummeting by €330 per household and €550m overall.

"The fact that sales this Christmas will only be up 3.5pc on the level of retail sales of Christmas a decade ago in value terms, despite rising costs and legacy debts, underlines the last decade's status as a lost decade for the sector," it commented last week.

Like everything, the proof of the Christmas pudding is in the eating, according to retail consultant James Burke: "One retailer told me they don't have as many deposits on toys this year, suggesting people are able to make the [full] purchase at a later date. But we won't know until January how much of this is down to having extra cash and how much is down to credit cards or Christmas loans.

"We know that consumer confidence has been growing all year," he said. "It will be very interesting to see the next figure that comes out after Christmas to see how Budget 2016 has moved that on."

Lust list for Christmas

Apple's hotly-anticipated  iPad Pro may be top of the lust-have gift list for both men and women this Christmas.

Following years of belt-tightening however, Santa is still more likely to deliver more affordable treats such as the Love/Hate Collectors Edition Box Set (€34.99), set to be launched by RTÉ next month, to homes across the land this Christmas eve.

Fitbit Flex (€71.99), a wireless activity and sleep wristband, Viktor & Rolf's limited edition 10th anniversary Flowerbomb perfume (30ml, €65) and a pewter Darth Vader mug (€134) by Malaysian firm Royal Selangor are just some of the items expected to fly off virtual and actual shelves this festive season.

Ahead of the release of Star Wars: Episode VII in December, the Force is strong among Irish children too with interactive figures of Chewy and Co (€144.99 each) and a Lego Millennium Falcon (€139.99) among the most coveted toys for Christmas 2015, according to Smyths.

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