Lights at the end of the tunnel

The most anticipated Diwali in memory approaches, with its bright promise of a festival of illumination, needed now more than ever, after the dark time the country has been through.

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Photo: iStock

The Festival of Lights, Diwali, or Deepavali, is celebrated by millions of Hindus, Sikhs and Jains globally, and is now one of the biggest ritual celebrations in the British Isles, along with Christmas and Ramadan-Eid.

The autumn/winter festival symbolises and also makes manifest the victory of light over darkness, good over evil and knowledge over ignorance, and Diwali is celebrated with millions of lights shining in temples and homes, banishing the night.

This year Diwali will be of special significance to British Asians and other Britons, too, arriving as it does after the brunt of a “plague season” that has brought much darkness to peoples’ lives all over the world.

Even now restrictions still apply on gatherings, and social distancing remains in  place. Nonetheless, we can fairly expect to see 2020 Diwali celebrated with a special intensity and devotion – and store-owners should prepare accordingly. Going by the latest, 2011, census there were over 800,000 Hindus in the UK, and a decade later the number must be significantly  higher (it had increased by 50 per cent in the first decade of the century).  With family gatherings and food central to the celebrations, this festival represents a significant opportunity for convenience store retailers.

Depending on the lunar cycle, Diwali is held in October or November and this year will fall on Saturday, 14 November. This centre-point of the five-day festival is on the day of Lakshmi Puja (in some places, Kali Puja) and the darkest night of the traditional month, Kartik, also the holiest month in the Hindu lunar calendar.

The festival actually begins on Dhanteras (12 November) and ends on Bhai Dooj (16 November).

There are regional variations in India: in Maharashtra, festivities begin one day earlier on Govatsa Dwadashi, and in Gujarat they start two days earlier on Agyaras, and culminate on Labh Panchami.

Dhanteras celebrates prosperity (“Dhan” means wealth), and commemorates the goddess Lakshmi emerging from the ocean on this day. At Diwali she is welcomed with a special puja.

Gold is traditionally purchased and people play cards and gamble. Ayurvedic doctors use this day to honour Dhanvantari, an incarnation of Lord Vishnu who brought Ayurveda to mankind.

The second day is Naraka Chaturdasi or Chhoti Diwali (small Diwali), celebrating the occasion when Kali and Lord Krishna destroyed the demon Narakasura.

Amavasya, the new moon day, the pivot of Diwali, is the third day – Saturday, 14 November in the UK  this year, when Lakshmi is honoured with a special evening puja.

The fourth day marks the start of a new year in Gujarat, while in north India it is the day when Lord Krishna defeated Indra. In some Indian states it celebrates the victory of Lord Vishnu over the demon king Bali.

On Bhai Dooj, the fifth day, brothers and sisters gather to share food, celebrating their familial bond.

Stocking up

The building blocks of a great Diwali for the independent store owner centre around meals and gifts.

The staples and ingredients of meals – chiefly rice of course, but spices and the essentials that go into various traditional Diwali dishes, should be on hand for the shopper to spot and take away.

Drinks, especially soft drinks, should also be high on the agenda for theming as a Diwali necessity.

And sweets – because Diwali is a treating and happy occasion – should also be prominently displayed and offered.

Retailers, particularly those near cities such as Leicester, London and Birmingham, can maximise sales during this period by making shopping for Diwali as easy and convenient for consumers as possible.

Creating a dedicated Diwali stand in-store where all relevant ambient products are displayed together – items such as basmati rice, packets of mixes to make dishes such as Pakora and Dahi Vada, spices such as garam masala and chaat masala, and cooking oils such as butter ghee, vegetable and sunflower oil – will mean shoppers can easily find everything they need within reach. A full and enticing display will encourage multiple purchases and indeed impulse purchases, too.

It’s important to remember that one of the most popular treats to be served during Diwali is sweets, and that as many of these are traditional, the domestic expertise to produce them is proudly flourished at this time of year.

There is a wide variety and flavours in Indian sweets that are perennially popular but retailers should bear in mind some typical ingredients including sugar, chickpea flour and condensed milk. Making sure to have stocks of these is a good idea.

As for shop-bought items, chocolates are often given as a gift over the Diwali period. Many retailers opt to stock a variety of boxed chocolates to suit varying budgets, to capture the drop-in trade, and sales always boom over Diwali.

What is different about Diwali this year, and advantageous for independent retailers, are the trends brought about by the pandemic and the measures taken against it. Chiefly this has meant staying closer to home and shopping more locally – a fashion that was reverting slightly to the norm before the recent new wave of lockdowns.

Kenton Burchell, Trading Director, Bestway Wholesale, notes the effects that disruption due to the pandemic have had.

“Many suppliers have delayed NPD,” he says, and adds, “we have seen a noticeable change in consumer behaviour due to availability of mainstream brands” Widespread supply issues, that still linger, mean that consumer preferences have to be liberalised.

“Due to availability issues across mainstream brands, customers have been switching to World Food brands such as White Pearl, Tilda, Kohinoor, Laila, TRS and KTC, so it’s important not to assume customers will only buy branded items for this occasion,” Burchell confirms.

He says the multiples will concentrate on “key lines” – oil, rice and flour– and that because they run once-a-year promotions across the World Food Category their stock availability is not guaranteed (they can run out easily).

“The biggest advantage that independents have,” he concludes, “is they can offer the range all year round and become established as the ‘go-to’ place to shop this speciality category. Independents can also offer a more personal service, get to know their customers and what they are looking for from their local store.”

Now is exactly the time for local retailers to embed that reputation with their clientele by ensuring their Diwali presence – range of stock and attractive displays and offers – are on top notch form.

Burchell’s professional advice? “For maximum impact products should be grouped together under the theme and displayed at the front of the store to attract the customers’ attention – merchandising on a gondola fixture with POS that highlights promotional prices will also create theatre and a sense of occasion.”

Rice is nice

Diwali is rice’s time to shine, and Tilda’s Head of External Affairs, Jonathan Calland (whom Asian Trader also interviewed back in June, at the height of the lockdown), is able to throw some interesting light on the upcoming festival of lights.

“Diwali is a key festival for many of our customers and presents a great opportunity for independent retailers to drive sales,” Calland says.“In addition to traditional Diwali foods including Indian sweets, nuts, dried fruits and herbs and spices, Basmati rice plays a particularly central role during this celebration because of its natural versatility that complements other flavours.”

Sales of Basmati rice peak across all retailers during the Diwali “season” and the festival period usually accounts for as much as 30 per cent of total annual volume of large bags of Basmati. “Tilda Big Bags represent excellent consumer value and are growing by +54 per cent in value within the total convenience market and growing faster than the category (+33 per cent),” Calland states.

That is in normal times, and we are in anything but normal times.

“Like many ambient categories, the rice category has experienced significant growth during the Covid-19 period, due in part to increased bulk buying, but also because rice is seen as a healthy choice,” he says, and reveals that the total UK rice market is now worth more than £600m and is growing by +13 per cent. We are now buying more rice than ever: it is nutritious, tasty, and perhaps above all, reassuring. More perfect than ever for Diwali.

“Within this, Dry Rice is growing the fastest, with larger formats (over 4kg) experiencing a growth rate of +22%.”

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Clearly in a time of uncertainty, the staples – an especially quality staples like Tilda – are much in demand. When supplies were short a few months ago, Tilda made certain that consumers could still get their hands on product by switching to smaller bag sizes, so there were more SKUs to go round.

But rice is doing great sales right now. “The news for the category is even more positive within convenience, with rice category growth up 35 per cent compared to the major mults (10.8 per cent).”

With three times the increase in purchase going through the convenience channel, Calland says consumers are demonstrating increased loyalty to brands they can trust, and he says that Tilda has experienced growth of 60.9 per cent in convenience, which as a channel has experienced over 40 per cent growth this year – much of it Covid-19 related.

“Tilda is now responsible for more than 55 per cent of the growth within the convenience market over 52 weeks. This increases to 75 per cent when looking specifically at dry rice.”

On top of this, Diwali is a time when customers are prepared to go for the best, so it’s a perfect opportunity to stock up on supplies for customers looking to source Diwali supplies locally.

“Tilda’s heritage and success in very much rooted within the convenience sector,” Calland underlines,“and this year, as it celebrates its 50th anniversary, Tilda is enormously grateful for the support it has received from the convenience channel.”

However, despite lockdown being lifted, there remains a level of uncertainty around the evolving situation, with the risk of local lockdowns common and no timeline on how quickly the remaining restrictions will be lifted.

As a consequence, 2020 Diwali shopper behaviour is also likely to shift. “Consumers will continue to prefer to buy locally and may have to celebrate in smaller groups. Demand for eating at home will continue to grow as some consumers remain wary of socialising out of home,” says Calland, indicating this is something retailers should plan for.

“This year, independent convenience stores need to be more prepared ahead of this year’s Diwali celebrations, by stocking all the traditional and essential ingredients including rice, flour, oil and spices to ensure customers are not left disappointed.”

Drinking to Diwali

Diwali is the time to indulge one’s sweet tooth, and that goes for drinks as well as desserts and chocolates.

“Food and drink are at the heart of festival celebrations and Diwali is no exception, with 35 per cent of shoppers spending more during events,” says Barr Soft Drinks Marketing Director, Adrian Troy. He says that traditional shoppers look for brands they know and trust, whilst new shoppers use events as inspiration to try something new – a win-win.

“Having a large range of flavours to choose from in larger pack formats is really important to shoppers, particularly when they are shopping less frequently and catering for all of the family with a range of tastes.”

Troy emphasises the idea that juices and sodas made from exotic fruits suit festivals very well,and he points out that the larger packs formats of Rubicon, incidentally the favourite juice brand of the convenience channel, soared by over +45 per centduring Ramadan earlier this year.

Rubicon Deluxe, available in Mango and Guava flavours, is a must-stock product range at Diwali. Both true to Rubicon’s sweet, rich, thick original recipe, these higher sugar, more indulgent products are ideal for special occasions and entertaining.

The Rubicon Regular is also a popular choice at Diwali, available in still and sparkling formats with the still now containing at least 50 per cent less sugar than the previous recipe. The popular sparkling mango variant is also now available in a zero sugar option to cater for increasing shopper demand for low calorie products.

As a result of the sales patterns, Barr Soft Drinks is encouraging retailers to stock up Rubicon with extra urgency this Diwali, as great demand is anticipated. Staying at home makes people extra thirsty, it seems, and as Troy says, at family and festival occasions people look towards “trusted, authentic” brands. They want the best for their celebration – especially this year when the get-together is that much more precious.

“Diwali traditionally brings families and friends together,” says Troy. “Whilst public gatherings are no longer possible and we are all discovering a new normal, Rubicon’s larger pack formats are perfectly placed to cater for virtual celebrations at home.”

He points out that fruit drinks are the largest Asian soft drinks category, accounting for 60 per cent of the market, making Rubicon a must-stock brand for retailers as it the No.1 Asian soft drink at this time of year.

As well as investing in the larger format sizes, local shoppers also tend to try new tastes and buy more flavours leading up to festivals such as Diwali. Apparently, sales spike especially in the week before the event, and Troy reveals that of an impressive £4.7 million of Rubicon drinks sold in the two months leading up to Diwali in 2019, £500k were recorded just one week before.

It is the essence of impulse buying and an extremely good reason to make sure you are prepared for any “last minute rush”.

With 45 per cent of shoppers new to the category during an event [according to researcher IRI], Diwali offers a sales opportunity for retailers stocking the right range. Troy says that means stocking up on both still and sparkling:“Rubicon provides a broad choice of great tasting, authentic flavours in impactful packaging,” so don’t delay, stock today!

Sweet taste of sales success

Sweets are a core part of the festival identity and their sampling is eagerly looked forward to – and not only by the children.

Some sweets, as we have said, will be lovingly created from scratch ingredients in the kitchen at home.

Others, namely quality, indulgent shop-bought chocolates, often in boxes and other gift forms, will arrive as presents and surprises, and their purchase – especially now in the convenience channel – is  a great revenue opportunity for retailers that should be fully capitalised on.

Ferrero has established itself over the years as a great friend of Diwali, to the extent that Ferrero Rocher products have almost become a symbol of the festival and earned a special place of prominence and affection in convenience stores.

Recent events have meant that association has only grown stronger, as Levi Boorer, Customer Development Director at Ferrero, explains.

“We have seen over recent months that many shoppers have gone to convenience stores instead of major supermarkets, due in large part to product availability being retained,” he says.

“In uncertain times, shoppers tend to rely on the brands they know and love, which we expect to be the case again at Diwali this year. This is great news for our boxed chocolate range, which offers the perfect solution to shoppers looking for a gift to share with loved ones.”

Ferrero’s little cannonballs are a perennial favourite, but the company’s purchase several years ago of iconic British chocolatier Thorntons led to a rebirth of the brand that has placed its boxed chocs once again at the top of the pile when it comes to choosing luxury confectionery.

“We would encourage retailers to stock up on those lines to ensure the range appeals to a variety of shoppers, such as Ferrero Rocher or Thorntons Classic,” says Boorer, dispensing key practical advice. “Core lines also have the benefit of retaining their relevance after the event has passed,” he adds,“so there is less wasted stock, which is particularly important this year where shopper demand during this key trading period is still difficult to predict.

He knows from experience that at Diwali, shoppers are on the lookout for items that “Look Fancy” and “Further the festivities”.

“Ferrero Rocher has always performed really well at Diwali, as the brand is loved by people of all ages and its golden uniqueness makes it the perfect gift,” he says.“Having become synonymous with the festival, Ferrero Rocher is a must-stock for retailers. We would recommend retailers stock up on Rocher T16 (200g), Collection T15 (172g) & Rocher T24 (300g), as these are the core, all-year-round SKUs that work perfectly as a gift for loved ones at this seasonal occasion.”

Looking a little further out, Boorer reminds us that with Diwali falling much later this year than last, there’s a real opportunity for retailers to meet shopper needs at each of the three major seasonal trading spikes that will take place in a short six-week period –  Diwali, Christmas and New Years’ Eve. Retailers should get creative with their confectionery displays to capture the sales potential presented by each, he says:

“With three major seasonal confectionery trading spikes taking place so close together, it’s even more important that retailers ensure they are stocking a versatile strong core range that will appeal to shoppers during these celebratory occasions. A core range of boxed confectionery will also help retailers to reduce the number of products losing their seasonal relevance, ensuring relevancy to festivities of all kinds and low wastage.”

Let’s hope the light of Diwali shows the way to a profitable winter season!

Be kind, look to the light

Asian Trader wishes everybody a Happy Diwali, especially at this particular time when our families feel more important than ever.

The dedication and sacrifice of independent retailers this year has been incredible – the country literally owes them a debt of immense gratitude for their work and selfless risk-taking during the pandemic.

But also the suppliers need to be thanked, for keeping the production lines going and for continuing to help those who needed support.

Tilda, among others, never ceased to help the community, and the company stands as a fine example of how to help during the crisis we have experienced this 2020.

“Giving back to the community was something dear to the heart of the brand’s founder and now inherent in the brand’s culture,” says Jonathan Calland.

“In response to the Covid-19 pandemic Tilda doubled its donations to The Felix Project which provides food to the homeless community and people who access food banks in the UK. Tilda has supported The Felix Project since its foundation in 2016. The brand also increased its support for the UN World Food Programme’s project to combat low-birth weight among the refugee population at Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.  These are both long-standing commitments by Tilda which help to support access to good food and healthier diets for everyone.”

Thanks to everyone who, like Tilda, has given so much back to the community they serve.

You’re a great channel, Convenience – Happy Diwali.