Holly and ivy all year round

You may think Christmas starts too early, but for some, it never goes away. James Sherwood reports

As you stagger defeated up Regent street at 7pm on Christmas Eve cursing St Nicholas, spare a thought for Santa's little helpers: those people whose everyday life is Christmas at the workhouse. For a select few retail fixers, the game plan for Christmas 1999 will be finished well before this year's Queen's Speech.

Spare no sympathy for the miserly shopper who buys next year's presents, remaindered cards and discount tinsel in the January sales. While they gather crumbs from the Christmas table, Paperchase is signing off fresh designs which won't emerge for a further 11 months. "Actually, we try to work about 14 months in advance," says Paperchase marketing director Robert Warden. "We start in October, by which time a lot of the trends are settled and we have decided on key colours for the season. Last year we did very well with feathers and fluff so we've developed that idea further this year." Feathers, fluff, acid bright stationery and smart cards all add up to a more style-conscious approach to what is essentially a tacky, cliche-ridden season. Christmas, it seems, is as much at the mercy of fashion as a Prada bag.

Though Warden declares, "Christmas and kitsch seem to go together," Paperchase have a talent for very self-aware kitsch. Less directional stores who copy Paperchase a year late are essentially 24 months too late. Paperchase were doing gold and silver metallic envelopes way before Asda who, this year, were handbagged by Anne Robinson for their metallic envelopes - which repelled both biro and stamp. Clearly somebody didn't do their research in time.

We may bemoan the fact that Christmas on the British high street starts as early as October. For Sainsburys senior buyer Jonathan Salisbury, Christmas shopping starts in January. "I'll be placing orders for Christmas 1999 turkeys as soon as the holiday is over," he says. "Incredibly, about 80 per cent of turkeys are sold in the three-day run-up to Christmas - the average sale in a Sainsburys branch over Christmas is 1250 turkeys, which can rise to 5000 in some stores. With these kinds of numbers, forward planning is a necessity."

Harvey Nichols are up and running for next year too. "We're planning next year's Christmas decoration already," says Janet Wardley, manager of the stores' visual merchandising. "We'll be putting even more effort in because it's the Millennium and I feel quite strongly about the approach we're going to take. But for now it's a secret."

For the fashion industry, forecasting is a way of life. Fashion for any given season is finalised at least six months in advance. Over the Christmas period, the empress of underwear, Janet Reger, increases sales by roughly 300 per cent. Her Beauchamp Place lingerie boutique is besieged by a steady stream of husbands and lovers. Buying a set of Reger Christmas stockings is as much part of the seasonal ritual as brandy butter and baubles. "We don't have a specific Christmas collection," says Reger's daughter and heir apparent Aliza, "because knickers with holly prints and Santa hats aren't really our style. But we obviously have an eye to Christmas when designing the autumn/winter collection. Next year's winter collection is already designed, so that will give you an idea of how far ahead we work. Production for the season starts in April/May but we can deliver to the boutique as late as 20 December, depending on the sales. Fashion does have help from the colour forecasts, which can work up to five years in advance, but we've learnt from experience that ivory, cream and black will always outsell avocado green, duck egg blue or whatever the key seasonal colour may be."

What of industries that can't work around the caprices of their customers? A self-styled A-list hairdresser like Nicky Clarke will have been fully booked for Christmas since 1991, but he's the exception, not the rule. Fish is arguably Soho's funkiest hair salon. Every year, owner Paul Burfoot peppers the minimal salon with the odd wreath and erects a faintly Gothic cross surrounded by candles in the window. "Soho's a real mixed bag," says Burfoot. "We always have to be flexible so we can't forward plan too much. We'll be booking four weeks in advance for women and ten minutes in advance for men. There's always a few clients who will need something a bit special for Christmas: Johnny Vaughn came in before he taped his Christmas interview with Madonna, the club kids come in wanting something a bit special for a big party night."

For all retailers, sales every Christmas are reported as meticulously as a census. The results are a retail psychological sketch of Great Britain. For example, Jonathan Salisbury has noted a huge trend for organic turkeys at Sainsburys, which presumably means we are mellowing and becoming more environmentally aware as we approach the millennium. Whereas price and quality were the two benchmarks of old, now convenience is key. "There's a relatively new market, young urban couples, who want best breast of turkey. They don't want the legs or the bones," says Salisbury. So we're seeing the luxury and ease of this season's Marc Jacobs and Armani reflected in our eating habits. Amazing what a turkey can tell you.

"Our first meeting for Christmas 1999 was called in November this year," says Sainsburys Christmas pudding guru Alison Marrs. "In fact, production of Christmas puddings can start as early as February. A good pudding - like Sainsburys Extra Matured label - can be eaten as late as 18 months after production. The time to mellow and mature enhances the flavour." Marrs says the 12 month Christmas period is essential to keep on top of gourmet trends. "Over this Christmas period, we will be testing every mince pie we can get our hands on to compare it with Sainsburys," she says. "We act on our research and customer replies. So, for example, there's 50 per cent more brandy in our luxury mince pies this year."

As the year comes to a close, we are bombarded with awards shows, best- of lists and retrospectives of the celebrity year. If, however, you want to know who the public really took to their hearts, then look no further than annual fancy dress hire best-sellers. London's Angels & Bermans is the Queen Mother of costume hire, with a 150,000 square foot warehouse of costumes. "The usual business we do in a week, we can do in a day over Christmas," says Angels marketing man Dylan Hearne. "We transfer stock from the warehouse to the shop on a daily basis, starting days after the previous Christmas for the next one. Christmas tells us the trends for the year to come. So, for example, Titanic is big business this year even though the movie came out over Christmas 1997. The Seventies is our major period: Studio 54, Last Days of Disco and Saturday Night Fever all contributed to that. A surprise best-seller is Uma's cat suit from The Avengers, and also Austin Powers."

So what does this Christmas retail clairvoyance tell us about the British public? We are an organic-eating, brandy-slugging, nation of kitsch lovers who love nothing better than to dress up as dead film stars and wear ivory underwear. Consequently, our idiosyncratic seasonal peccadilloes fuel a thriving year-round industry.

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