Unwrapping the Holiday: A Retailer's Christmas Q&A

Written by: Annabel Easton



Time to read 4 min

The festive season is in full swing and we're kicking off December with a Christmas Q&A series featuring our wonderful retailer stockists. This week we're talking with the brilliant Sean Austin from Austin & Co, a card and gift shop in Malvern, Worcestershire. Here's how he's preparing for all things Christmas…

When do you start putting Christmas items out, and how much store space do you allocate?

This year, though the temptation was to put Christmas out even earlier, I held back. It's always a case of 'who blinks first', and although we had one stand of charity packs out from September for the early adopters, it's often forgotten how busy September is for birthdays, especially the tinsel babies. So after a rather successful September for everyday/birthday cards, Christmas arrived in force from the end of October, to coincide with an influx of visitors to Malvern for the half-term week.


Christmas being the behemoth it is tends to take up half the card space in the shop. The trick though is to keep as much everyday stock out as possible, as life does carry on. The customers appreciate that they can still buy a birthday, anniversary or sympathy card and that our focus isn't purely on Christmas. This year we experimented with making space by removing relations and age milestone cards off the shop floor and into trays accessible from the shop counter. Typically the slower movers, they do tend to take up the most room. We're selling just as many in this format and the plan is to continue with it into the New Year through the Spring Seasons.

A selection of Christmas charity card packs laid out on a snowy table.

How do you create a festive and welcoming atmosphere in your store to attract Christmas shoppers?

Internally, we let the cards and wrap do the talking! Our gift offer isn't really Christmas-themed and we don't sell decorations in any great number. And not a cinnamon-scented candle in sight! Instead, we concentrate on the windows to entice people in. Having inherited the large windows of an ex-department store, they can be a challenge but I can also show a more playful side or go big.

How do you decide on the types of products or promotions to offer during Christmas, and why?

Gift-wise, it is more of the same as the rest of the year. I don't go themed or gimmicky. I'm buying into the New Year so I look for product with a little longevity to it rather than something that would end up in a sale in January. It's not a time to try something new and there are no promotions until after Christmas; I feel it's only fair that someone who bought a Christmas card in December pays the same price as someone who bought it in October. Even dated products such as diaries remain at full price into the Spring. At the end of the day it's all about holding your nerve - and 99 times out of 100, we're proved right.

What challenges do you typically face during the Christmas season, and how do you address them?

Cashflow is an age-old issue given you're invoiced for a lot of seasonal stock that doesn't quite get going. But over the past 13 Christmases, we have started to buy in earlier in the year and to spread the cost throughout the year. From mid-November, large orders are very few and far in-between and the 6 weeks up to Christmas is all about sell, sell, sell and to get some liquidity back into the bank.


A selection of Christmas charity card packs laid out on a snowy table.

Are there any unique traditions that your store participates in to celebrate Christmas ?

Our town's Christmas Light Switch On is a large event in terms of numbers so we make an extra push to promote the shop, even if it isn't the greatest festive day in terms of turnover; that tends to come a week later. This year is the 125th anniversary of the birth of CS Lewis and the town is celebrating his relationship with Malvern by going all out Narnia. We've commissioned an art piece for the window that will form part of a trail.Fast becoming a tradition is Nessa's Christmas Dog Food Drive for a local dog rescue charity. Now in its 11th year, I get enquiries before I even announce it's started.

How important is The Art File’s Christmas collection to your store's overall Christmas look, and are there any favourites your customers always buy?

The Art File forms the core of our Christmas offer with others built around it. We have always found dealing with a publisher who can offer a range of designs in depth to be beneficial - it does look like I've gone to a dozen or so publishers to curate the range when in fact I've only gone to one - a massive timesaver! In terms of favourites, if one stands out it would be Bear!

How do you balance the need to meet sales targets with the desire to maintain the spirit and meaning of Christmas in your retail operation?

I'm no Scrooge but sales are key for the golden quarter, there's no denying that. Every space in the shop has to earn its space. I'm wary of my outgoings at this time of the year - being festive and merry can make you frivolous and make ill-informed choices. It's important for me to remain focused. I enjoy Christmas but I don't let it catch me out. 

A selection of Christmas charity card packs laid out on a snowy table.

What’s on your Christmas list this year and if you had one Christmas retail wish, what would it be?

Our personal gifting tends to be a holiday to each other! Since 2020, we've not had a year without some form of upheaval whether it has been the pandemic, lockdowns, wars, overseas and subsequent cost of living issues. I'd quite like to have a normal year in retail - something quite like 2012, I enjoyed that year!