Traffic lights and 24-hour opening: supermarkets gear up for unusual Christmas shop

Business

Stores anxious to cut queues and keep shoppers happy as social distancing risks dampening festive sales bonanza

Supermarkets are to use digital queueing systems, 24-hour trading, door marshals and incentives to shop early in an attempt to provide socially distanced shopping during what is expected to be their biggest ever Christmas sales period.

With government restrictions to control coronavirus limiting eating out and pub visits, British shoppers are expected to spend a record £12bn in supermarkets and convenience stores in December, about £1.5bn more than last year, according to analysts at Kantar.

But social distancing measures mean retailers must cap the number of shoppers in their stores at any one time, prompting fears that the Christmas rush could result in long queues and angry customers.

Many more people will buy their sprouts and turkey online this year, but most supermarkets’ delivery slots for Christmas week are already booked up. Despite massive growth in available delivery capacity this year, less than 14% of groceries are bought over the internet, and the huge increase in sales will turn up the pressure on stores.

In an effort to head off problems, more than 300 Tesco stores will be open round the clock from Monday 14 December to Christmas Eve. Many other stores will extend their hours, opening their doors from 5am. The UK’s biggest supermarket chain has also installed a traffic light system in most stores to help regulate the number of shoppers.

Next week, Waitrose is launching a queueing app, called Qudini, which enables shoppers to book a shopping time slot remotely. Customers will be able to book a slot at more than 100 stores to help prevent big queues building up in the peak shopping period.

Asda is also using Qudini, which it has been trialling since the spring, while Sainsbury’s is enabling virtual queues via a different app in some stores.

Steven Hand, head of customer experience at Waitrose, said: “We’re doing all we can to make our customers’ grocery shop as safe, easy and convenient as possible. Our pre-bookable slots are just another way we’re doing this and will give peace of mind to those who like to plan ahead and avoid queues.”

Its supermarkets will also be opening until 11pm until 23 December. On Christmas Eve they will close at 6pm, although some of the grocer’s Little Waitrose convenience stores will stay open until midnight.

The “vast majority” of Sainsbury’s outlets will trade from 6am to midnight from 21 December. It is also offering members of its Nectar loyalty scheme extra points to shop before 13 December as it tries to persuade customers to plan ahead.

The late-night openings at supermarkets follow similar moves by fashion and homeware stores including Marks & Spencer and Primark. From 21 to 23 December, Marks & Spencer will be opening two-thirds of its stores until midnight, with the remainder open until 10pm.

Concerns about the last-minute rush have already prompted families to order festive food earlier than usual. Pre-orders for turkey are up 138% at Waitrose, with most of the available range now sold out. Sales of turkey were up 36% across the entire grocery market in November, according to analysts at Kantar.

Sales of fairy lights are up 21% and baubles 23% compared with last year at John Lewis, while B&Q sold out of most of its stock of lights and other Christmas decorations two weeks earlier than usual.