News Analysis: Season of aggressive promotions

With Christmas just a fortnight away, shopping centres and retail giants have all gone into overdrive to get Britons to spend, spend, spend. Ian Hall asks what sort of PR techniques they are using to lure consumers.

The hordes that descend on Brent Cross shopping centre in North London can now tune in to a dedicated radio station while scrapping for a parking slot in the pre-Christmas crush. The station, BXFM, will broadcast until 9 January with music, traffic and event updates and is the latest PR tool being used by the centre in a bid to attract consumers to its 117 retailers.

But how busy is Brent Cross, and all the other shopping meccas across the country, such as traditional high streets, in the rush to Christmas - and how can PROs help deliver all-important footfall? With Britons spending £10bn more in December than in any other month, Christmas can make or break the calendar-year sales for the retail giants.

Kate Ison, press officer at the British Retail Consortium, the trade association for the UK retail industry, says: 'There is no real way of knowing how Christmas will pan out for retailers. It could go either way.

Since 2000 it seems that more people are waiting until the last minute, thinking they'll catch the sales and pick up a bargain - last year the run-up to Christmas was very slow and Christmas Eve was very busy.'

Last-minute price cuts

With the chains split over expectations for trading, so-called guerilla promotions - where prices are chopped at the last minute, leaving rivals unable to respond in time - have this year fired the media's interest.

Such price-led promotions have caused the Daily Mail to talk up a 'trading bloodbath'.

These types of promotions are led by quick-turnaround advertising but PR has a part to play in alerting journalists to where bargains can be found. Electrical goods retailer Dixons 'pumps out' a minimum of one email alert a day in the run-up to Christmas. Flagging up price deals is 'a ready-made story,' says group head of press and PR Hamish Thompson. But he is sceptical about the term guerilla promotion, describing it as 'a buzzword about something retailers have been doing for years'.

He says: 'Product PR is standard pre-Christmas PR but you need to develop talking points that give customers reasons to buy or give evidence that you've committed to stress-free shopping.' Last year Dixons spun a positive news story out of its move to ban the playing of Slade's Merry Christmas Everybody in its stores.

But Thompson says in the pre-Christmas period his team is restricted in its capacity to talk up product category popularity because its group interim results are in mid-January. Financial regulations forbid the release of what may be deemed market-sensitive information in preceding weeks.

Buckinghamshire-based Nobull Communications has promoted Brent Cross for the past three years. Given the multicultural community served by the centre, Brent Cross opts to promote its winter PR activity around a 'Season of Celebration' theme.

But Nobull account manager Lynn Blackburn says Christmas remains the 'main focus' for PR activity and that distributing press releases promoting competitions, photo opportunities or 'diary notes', mainly to local titles such as the Hendon & Finchley Times, form the bulk of Nobull's PR.

Brave PR promotes the Bluewater centre in Kent. Account manager Rachael Coomber Nolan says: 'We are focusing on points of difference and guest services, such as the grotto and outdoor ice rink'.

Brave also launched a broader pre-Christmas PR campaign last month promoting research into consumer behaviour that showed shopping is a 'search and kill, trophy process likened to that of Neanderthals going out and killing their prey,' she says.

Meanwhile, Hannah Foster, press officer at Manchester's Trafford Centre, plans to produce a 'stream' of stories on buying and spending trends, celebrity book/DVD signings, charity initiatives and Christmas events.

Year-round strategy

Retail giant Woolworths spends £20m each year on marketing its Christmas offers; director of comms Nicole Lander says 40 per cent of the store's annual profits come from the Christmas season. Planning the PR strategy for Christmas is a year-round pursuit for the likes of Woolworth and its 'Christmas in July' press event saw a gifts brochure handed out to journalists.

Lander says Woolworths is still chasing as much positive PR as possible.

She acknowledges that rival chains 'copy and learn from each other' in respect of last-minute PR tactics, but says it is becoming 'harder than ever to place stories in the media because celebrities are pushing consumer stories off the pages'.

Daily Mirror consumer editor Ruki Sayid says: 'PR-led stories have to be far more sophisticated than "the cheapest deal in town".

'We need angles, not just products and prices. PROs have become good at market-research-led stories, for example breaking down shoppers into different types.' She lauds Sainsbury's for helping her to 'turn round' a story on Christmas trees last week, entitled 'What Your Tree Says About You?'

PROs are already focused, too, on the Boxing Day sales. Foster says she is already booking interviews with national and regional TV programmes for between 26 December and the New Year. Similarly, Lander says her team's strategic planning for Christmas next year will kick off in January.

Amid the high-profile advertising and headlines of price slashing, PROs are going all out in the battle for shoppers' wallets.

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