A later than usual Easter weekend. A four day bank holiday for the royal wedding just a few days later. And with school holidays falling outside the bank holiday, pupils in some areas have virtually the whole month off. This combination of factors has left retailers scratching their heads – will Easter 2011 be retail heaven or hell? Sue Benson, managing director of shopper marketing agency The Market, explains:

Can we use the past to predict the future?
The shape of Easter 2011 is completely unprecedented. Not only is it the latest Easter Sunday since 1943, but thanks to the royal wedding date being set for Friday, April 29 there is an additional bank holiday Friday this year. For the first time ever, two four day weekends follow each other.

The effect is an Easter period which rolls into one rather jumbled and prolonged period of time off. Many people who work a standard five day week have taken April 26, 27 and 28 off to give themselves a bumper 11 days away from work.

While your average person will be thanking William and Kate for the ‘buy three, get 11’ holiday opportunity, retailers are nervous and questioning what it will mean for them.

We don’t have a crystal ball, but we can speculate using previous seasons and trends as guidance. If we look at previous dates for Easter, match retail figures to them and then take a look at what the prevailing weather conditions were at the time it provides some interesting insights.

Last year, when Easter fell on April 4, John Lewis reported ‘remarkable’ sales figures, up around 30% year-on-year across the group. John Lewis stores in Bluewater and the Trafford Centre both saw a 45% plus uplift in sales. Easter 2010 was particularly wet, and in the North West at least, the weather worsened across the weekend until the sun finally appeared late on Monday afternoon!

Taken in isolation, it would appear that the wet weather caused a migration to the big, undercover shopping areas, with general lifestyle-led retailers like John Lewis benefitting greatly.

In 2008, when Easter fell on the earliest ever date of March 23, the Office of National Statistics reported generally poor retail sales. Again, the weather was particularly bad – it was bitterly cold, and in some parts of the country Easter Sunday saw snow. So while rain actually drives people to certain kinds of shops, does cold weather and snow put them off going out at all?

The long range weather forecaster Netweather says of April 2011, that drier weather will become more prevalent with much of the country seeing below average rain across the month, at the same time all regions are expected to be slightly warmer than the average – this could be good for the high street.

But what we can say for sure is that whatever the weather, Easter will boost sales. In 2009, when Easter fell on April 12, sales figures that month showed a year-on-year increase of 2.6%, and this ‘Easter uplift’ is generally repeated down the years.

The effect of consumer confidence
Rain or shine, will all of this be irrelevant against a backdrop of low consumer confidence and a drive for austerity?

The Consumer Confidence Barometer reported in February 2011 that consumer confidence has stabilised, but not bounced back.

Nick Moon, Managing Director of GfK NOP Social Research, said: “Overall confidence remains low and, although it has not reached the depths of two years ago, the fact that it is 10 points down on six months ago, and 14 points down on a year ago, represents a significant set-back to hopes of recovery.”

So while a general stabilisation has to be good news, it does cause a general worry for those selling big ticket items. Why Sue???

Consumer confidence barometers apart, the long gap between Christmas and this holiday period feels like it could be the right time of year to spend. We all know that it’s not just a case of feeling more optimistic about the economy, it’s a case of feeling more optimistic about life generally – warmer, longer days play a huge part in the nation’s spending psyche.

Shopping time or family time – will this shape Easter trading patterns?
The unusual set of events in April 2011 have caused some schools to reorganise their Easter holiday, which in state schools normally lasts for two weeks or so. It’s usually the case that pupils have a holiday which incorporates Easter itself and then go back to school well before the early May bank holiday. There is a return to normality before the bonus of another long weekend.

This year appears to be a case of ‘each to their own’ with even schools in the same area taking different holidays – a logistical nightmare not just for parents but for retailers attempting to plan for this vital trading period.

School holidays split across the country doesn’t help either – 50% of schools are taking one or both of the first two weeks of April off and then the remainder taking the time off around Easter and the Bank Holiday.

From a sociological perspective, increasing importance is placed on family time and spending this period doing things together, and this is evidenced in the growth in the Easter category, such as the M&S Easter party range, and the Cadburys great Easter egg hunt.

Because it is law for shops above a certain square footage to close on Easter Sunday, our prediction is that the first three days of this long break will be for family. Then it’ll be to hit the shops on Easter Monday through to the next event, the wedding.

At The Market we are experts in observational research, and bank holiday shoppers generally display a certain type of behaviour. The ‘day out’ shopping mentality will be in play, so behaviour will be more leisurely with browsing and enjoyment rather than extreme short bursts more common on an ordinary weekend – the dash for things so you can spend more time at home.

Our survey said…
We did a quick survey of our colleagues, friends and family to find out what people were planning for Easter weekend. Of the 60 or so people we spoke to, this is what they said:

• Spending time shopping for DIY items – 28.8%
• Spending time shopping for clothes – 30.8%
• Spending time shopping for home – 16.7%
• Spending time shopping for garden – 42.3%

This is clearly great news if you’re a garden retailer! Generally Easter is about the outdoors, feeling like the first weekend of Spring. The weather is also likely to determine the fate of the DIY sector – inside wielding a paintbrush or outside enjoying the first warm weather of the year, I know which I’d rather choose!

One thing I can predict with certainty is that food retailers will have an amazing Easter, with numerous opportunities for parties and gatherings. I think we’ll see some interesting promotions, particularly on alcohol, as the supermarkets battle it out for Easter trade.

We also asked our sample if they would be more likely to shop at Easter than May Bank Holiday – 22.8% said yes and 77.2% said no, which would suggest that there isn’t a skew towards one of the weekends in retail terms.

What can retailers do to counteract the effects?
Clearly the action a retailer needs to take to counteract the effects of an unusual trading period is dependent on a number of factors, not least which sector they are in. Generally, we would recommend:

• Strong promotional offers with clear close dates – to drive footfall over the Easter weekend then the following three day period leading to the royal wedding.

• Retailers need to be persuasive to give people reassurance that this is a wise time to buy – focus on benefits and value.

• Get into the spirit of the occasion and appeal to the family/holiday feel – so make things more experiential.

• Involve the kids – make this a family experience. Give parents something to do with their children.

• Think about how they can drive traffic to the High Street environment – give away High Street discounts rather than online discounts.

• Voucher season – enter the world of social shopping and use social media channels to influence a shopper’s decision. Given that 90% of decisions are researched online, get involved with shoppers before they make a purchase.