Canada makes merry

By Karl McKeever | 21.12.17

‘It’s Christmaaaasss!’… in my best Noddy Holder voice. And that means we once again get to listen to him belting out these oh-so-familiar words every time we walk into a store or switch on the radio.

There is something both reassuring and wearying about his ubiquitous strain. For many people, Noddy et al really do signal the start of Christmas. And yet Merry Xmas Everybody was released back in 1973. That’s 44 years ago.

Despite this, listening (or singing along) to Slade, The Pogues or Wizzard, provides a reminder that the art of the Christmas song seems to have disappeared. Where are all the new Christmas songs? Yes, we love familiarity and nostalgia. But we’re also desperate for something new and interesting.

Retailers could learn a lesson or two from the way we view these festive songs. For me, window displays aside, there is so much more that retailers can and should be doing to bring a sense of imagination and playfulness to the festive in-store experience through VM, while still harnessing our nostalgic love of tradition. Can retailers make Christmas feel special again in store?

In Canada, it seems they can. My visit to Toronto last month provided a spirited reminder of how a festive obsession can be turned into an all-out spectacle, with retailers pulling out all the stops to deliver a jaw-dropping, premium visual merchandising offering which creates a shopper experience full of seasonal joy.

Take the newly renovated Sherway Gardens Mall, for example, featuring gorgeous, larger-than-life size stags and reindeer, and baubles enveloped in white lights to provide a truly magical feel. No other decorations were used throughout the mall – these were enough, delivering an eye-catching yet tastefully premium look and feel.

Canadian retailers have delivered Christmas to another level

Nordstrom was another shining example of how to get Christmas right. Its folk theme was added to every focal point, a combination of hanging wreaths and trees, with the main theme or red running throughout the scheme. It made full use of its space, was easy to navigate and a pleasure to shop.

Elsewhere, Pottery Barn delighted with some really incredible Christmas tables, using intricate attention to detail and showing off some spectacular VM skills. The whole store felt like the spirit of Christmas, with exquisite trees encrusted with beautiful decorations and an impactful red and white theme used to best effect. It was true VM heaven.

As for Williams and Sonoma – wow, just wow. Beautifully dressed tables, stunning displays; everything was delivered with absolute effortless impact.

In short, I think the Canadian retailers have delivered Christmas to another level, one that we simply aren’t used to in the UK. Here, many retailers fall into the trap of cramming every single shelf with product, reusing old garlands and trees year after year – by comparison with Canada, it looks tired and tacky.

Perhaps retailers’ attention has been diverted too much by the aptly named Black Friday

Retailers must consider that, with seasonal promotions featuring all year round on the calendar, from Halloween to Mother’s Day, Easter and Father’s Day, shoppers are nearing saturation point. But Christmas is arguably the most important time of year for retailers to focus on the experiential side of shopping, seducing shoppers and pulling out all the stops to deliver an incomparable experience.

While the Canadian shopping environment is one that’s stress free, expertly delivered, spacious and relaxed, offering a truly magical experience, shopping at Christmas in the UK is invariably stressful as we wade through shelves full of products nobody wants or needs. The VM focus is almost always on decadent dressed window schemes, rather than the all-important instore elements that help to bring Christmas to life throughout the shopper journey.

Perhaps retailers’ attention has been diverted too much by the aptly named Black Friday? Originating in the online world, it has infiltrated the physical retail store, serving only to perpetuate the all-too familiar ‘race to the bottom’ that has seen margins and profits eroded. Suddenly retailers are fighting to offer the lowest prices, regardless of branding or shopper experience – a completely counterintuitive move.

Which brings me back to Christmas. There is so much scope for UK retailers to watch and learn, both from international markets such as Canada and successful campaigns domestically. By focusing carefully on creating an emotional connection with shoppers and not giving into the temptation of driving sales at the cost of reputation, retailers can become a beacon of best practice for others to strive to emulate.

One such example is John Lewis, which has become renowned for embracing the spirit of Christmas through its now-iconic advertising. This high-end retailer has moved away from the notion of selling a product, instead choosing to focus on the emotional side of the season. For me, the game changer was the little boy desperately waiting for Christmas… so he could give, rather than receive, his presents. What retailers need to do now is find ways to weave more of that ‘magic’ into how Christmas is brought to life for shoppers, and not just consumers.

It’s time for retailers to make a New Year’s resolution to commit to doing something different next time. Who is going to be game changer next Christmas? Start thinking now. After all, there’s less than 400 days until Christmas 2018, so you’d better get planning. I for one am hoping that the end of 2017 will not only mark the passing of one year into the next, but also the start of something new – pushing things in new directions to keep shoppers engaged and inspired. Let’s make 2018 a year to remember, for all the right reasons.

Until then, I’d like to wish all Retail Focus readers a very happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year.



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