United Kingdom

Advent calendars 2020: Meet the small shops and businesses counting down to Christmas

The entire country is in need of a bit of Christmas cheer after almost 10 months of pandemic crisis and economic turmoil - but small businesses are optimistic.  

With many suffering plunging sales or having to shut up shop completely, making the most of the festive spending this year is even more important than usual. 

Last week saw many businesses offer Black Friday discounts in a bid to woo shoppers but others have opted to create novelty advent calendars to showcase their goods and entice sales in December.  

One traditional item that has been pivotal for getting both children and adults alike excited about the approaching festivities is the advent calendar

Advent calendars have long been a tradition, with most families having either a paper version with doors that reveal festive illustrations, a reusable version that is hauled out of the attic year after year, or maybe if you're lucky, a chocolate calendar providing a different edible treat every morning in the countdown to Christmas. 

Recent years have seen these calendars become more extravagant and luxury however, with big label beauty brands and department stores such as Liberty releasing calendars worth hundreds of pounds.   

Inspired by the opportunity to give potential customers a taster of their whole range in one gift, many small boutique businesses have cottoned on and designed their own advent calendars for 2020. This is Money takes a look.  

Scandiborn

This firm offers a themed box with numbered trays, each of which reveals a wooden stamp in its Meri Meri Unicorn Ink Stamp Advent Calendar.

Designs include a unicorn, festive icons, cherries and much more as well as coloured ink trays - perfect for kids who love to craft. 

Snaffling pig sells a special range of advent calendars containing pork crackling

Snaffling Pig 

Snaffling Pig offers something never seen before with its Christmas Dinner Pork Crackling Calendar, helping you count down to Christmas with 24 mini bags of porky loveliness (or not - depending on your taste). 

Popcorn lovers 

London based gourmet popcorn brand Joe & Seph’s has been selling its air popped corn in a range of innovative flavours for the past 10 years, and is selling advent calendars to celebrate its tenth birthday this year. 

The range has now won 67 Great Taste Awards and is stocked in retailers around the world.

Co-founder and popcorn chef Joseph Sopher said: 'My love of popcorn began while taking regular trips to the USA, each time returning with flavoured popcorn as gifts for friends and family. Realising there was nothing quite like this in the UK, I wondered if I could make my own flavoured popcorn, but even better.

'Needless to say these last few months have been very challenging. Several of our key customers operate in both the travel and cinema industries, which during the lockdown are obviously not able to operate. 

'Almost overnight we lost a large proportion of our expected sales revenue and many of the partnerships and events we had planned to secure growth have now also been cancelled.' 

Joe said being a small business meant the company was agile and able to react quickly to the changing marketplace. At the start of lockdown it invested heavily in its website and growing its online sales channels. 

Fortunately, the investment reaped rewards with website sales tracking at eight times on last year’s sales with over 100,000 new consumers. 

'This year, the appetite to celebrate Christmas after such a turbulent year has been larger than ever before. We’ve seen record advent calendar sales totalling over 30,000 units.'

Gourmet popcorn brand Joe & Seph's said being a small business meant the company was agile and able to react quickly to the changing marketplace during the pandemic

Clean hands and healthy bodies

Nourished is a relatively new tech and wellness start-up designed to revolutionise the vitamin industry through innovation and personalisation. 

It creates bespoke 3D printed vitamin gummies according to your dietary needs, lifestyle and goals, allowing you to completely customise your nutrition regime and make it more convenient and sustainable. 

Its founder Melissa Snover, from Birmingham, said its e-commerce business experienced an upswing in demand as shoppers went online during the first lockdown, but it wanted to help the community in any way it could.

She said: 'We stood by our community and our customers, we stopped selling outbound completely, started giving lots of stuff away and started talking more to people.

'Hand sanitiser started running out so we transformed the lab where we develop new products into a hand sanitiser factory pretty much overnight.

'I was online trying to source the raw materials – you need alcohol, aloe vera or vegetable glycerin – and within two days we’d sourced small bottles and started making it.

'Having something like Covid coming at such a young stage in our business; it’s very difficult to manage and to pivot because you are already vulnerable.'

Melissa Snover - Nourished

'We gave it away to anyone who asked – care homes, the local authority, the chambers of commerce, different NHS departments throughout the Midlands area, and to all of our customers.

'Having something like Covid coming at such a young stage in our business, it’s very difficult to manage it and to pivot because you are already in a very vulnerable stage.' 

Fast forward to the end of lockdown two and its Christmas sales strategy is on the agenda. 

It too has opted to create an advent calendar - this one offering chewable gummy vitamins. According to Melissa, it's designed for a time that often takes a toll on our health, with the stress over preparing for the big day and then ultimately over-indulging - but also a time to rejuvenate after what has been a difficult year for many.

'Each week on the calendar brings a different focus, from protecting your body’s natural immunity to soothing the mind, body and soul,' said Melissa. 'Nourished’s advent calendar is there to give you a daily boost to help make sure you are at your best when Christmas day arrives.' 

Hidden behind each advent calendar door is an individual 3D-printed gummy stack that includes seven active ingredients such as vitamin C, zinc, ashwagandha and tart cherry. 

'It is designed to give people a healthy boost to get through December, whether it’s improving our immune systems or delivering more energy. That means when the big day arrives you are in perfect shape – rested and relaxed – to enjoy some fun times with the family.'

Seven beers for seven Bro7hers 

Seven Bro7hers Brewing Co, a Manchester-based brewery run by seven brothers, introduced its advent calendar for 2020 after a significant drop in sales and more time on their hands during lockdown. 

Seven Bro7hers Brewing Co got ahead of the game and developed the concept for their 2020 advent calendar during the first lockdown earlier this year

Chief executive Keith McAvoy said: 'We set up the family business to offer something new, that would allow us to become entrenched within the community we love and grew up in. 

'We celebrated a turnover of £2.2million in 2019, with our 10 core products accounting for over four million litres of craft beer sold - that's enough to fill two Olympic size swimming pools.'

However the family business was heavily impacted by the pandemic, and is looking at a £500,000 fall in profits for this year. 

Despite this, the brothers decided to get ahead of the game during the first lockdown and upscaled its e-commerce business to meet web shop demands while working on improving and introducing products for later in the year.

Its advent calendar, new for this year, features a range of its family of core beers and a number of special beers, including its Kellogg’s upcycled cereal beer range. 

A time of gifts 

For something different that makes making a difference go further afield, 28-year-old Kristina Salceanu, founded Advent of Change in 2018, which allows customers to donate to multiple charities with a single purchase. 

This year's range includes several not-for-profit advent calendars, advent candles, Christmas crackers and a year-round wall calendar.

Advent of Change allows customers to donate to multiple charities with a single purchase

Kristina said: 'I set up Advent of Change after seeing the trend for unusual advent calendars – it seemed you could get one for almost anything, from food and beauty products to toys, socks and even pork scratchings! 

'At the time I had just started volunteering for a charity and everyone I mentioned the idea to was also looking for ways to help and wanting to do more to help others – but didn't know how – and in a busy modern world there was no "easy" way to do this.'

In 2018 the company raised £100,000 for 48 different charities, and doubled this in 2019. It is hoping to reach £200,000 again this year.

'This year, we are actually up around 30 per cent year-on-year which is completely unexpected,' Kristina added. 

'After such a difficult year, I think people are looking forward to Christmas earlier than usual and we’re seeing that reflected in online sales. We’re hopeful this giving spirit will continue over the coming weeks and we’ll reach our goal of half a million pounds raised in total by the end of 2020.' 

Keeping with traditions 

For a more traditional, simple, option, Dog & Dome's advent calendars are made of card and behind each door features a design by artist and co-founder Catriona Hall. 

The company, which sells kitchenware, homeware and paper products, saw sales fluctuate throughout the pandemic, though things have been picking up in the run-up to Christmas. 

Co-founder Flora Woodruff said: 'Our advent calendar is made of card and behind each window hides one of Catriona's creations, from stars to wise men to bells, each day is different.

'This year is our first year selling advent calendars and in the current unknown, a great comfort can be taken in gifting something fun and familiar. 

'We hope Catriona's designs will bring some festive cheer into an otherwise bleak time.' 

Vegan treats 

For those looking for a simple chocolate advent calendar, Mummy Meagz, founded by Meagan Boyle, is a chocolate and sweet treats manufacturer, with a focus on free-from and vegan products.

Its advent calendar is a new product for 2020, alongside six other new Christmas treats including bursting hot chocolate baubles, jolly chocolate buttons and more.

Meagan said: 'The number of vegans in the UK has quadrupled in the past five years, and now numbers more than 600,000. It’s therefore important that everyone can enjoy the products that are symbolic of Christmas, regardless of their dietary preferences.'

Fortunately, the company had not been overly affected by the pandemic due to its online offering. Its cafe, Blondes in Cottingham, was forced to close.

Megan said she realised the important role the cafe played in local life. 

'During the first lockdown the team visited elderly residents to ensure they stay connected to others, and even offered a dog walking service free of charge,' she said. 

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