Shoppers have begun stocking up early on Christmas favourites including mince pies and children’s toys, new figures show, as industry leaders warned of rising prices and shortages of stock.
Close to 5 million households bought mince pies in October, while 1.6 million bought Christmas puddings – 400,000 more than in the same month last year – according to data company Kantar.
Frozen poultry sales were 27 per cent higher, with spending up by £6.1m in the last four weeks. Poultry farmers were forced to cut production earlier this year after thousands of workers in the sector left the UK, prompting concerns about a shortage of turkeys.
Food industry leaders even advised households to buy some items early and freeze them if possible to avoid disappointment.
“With Christmas ads out earlier than ever and Christmas stock on the shelves, we’re keen to prepare early this year so we can dive head-first into festivities,” said Fraser McKevitt, Kantar’s head of retail and consumer insight.
The figures also showed grocery prices rising at their fastest annual rate for 14 months, with inflation hitting 2.1 per cent. Farmers have seen their own costs surge as it has become more expensive to heat greenhouses and buy fertiliser.
So far, the supermarkets that dominate UK grocery supplies have resisted putting up prices in many areas, but food producers say something must give or it is simply uneconomical to carry on growing some products.
Beyond groceries, online spending on toys and children’s products was up 38.4 per cent in October, figures from Barclaycard indicated. The company found that around a third of people are changing the way they shop this year, with half of those saying they had brought Christmas shopping forward.
According to the British Retail Consortium, consumers spent more on clothing and footwear last month as social calendars filled up, but furniture and electrical goods sales were down, having been heavily impacted by global disruption to shipping routes.
The news comes as MPs are being given fresh warnings about labour shortages, which have already caused havoc in the UK’s supply chains.
Tom Southall, policy director at the Cold Chain Federation, said a lack of workers in warehouses was a particular concern.
“We are having reports from members that warehousing is becoming quite an acute issue in the run-up to Christmas,” he told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.
He estimated that the industry was short of between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of the staff required.
Businesses have struggled to keep up with rising demand after the number of non-UK workers dropped sharply following Brexit.
Warehouse space has also been at a premium thanks to a boom in online shopping. The effect has been compounded as companies have sought to stockpile goods to mitigate the impact of long delays to deliveries shipped in from abroad.
Pubs, bars and restaurants are among the businesses hit hardest by supply-chain woes. Kate Nicholls, chief executive of trade body UKHospitality, said that the sector would struggle to provide the service it would like to this Christmas because it did not have enough staff at venues or in the supply chain.
Around 20 per cent of items ordered are not turning up, Ms Nicholls told the Defra committee. One in 10 jobs in the sector is estimated to be unfilled – a shortfall of 200,000 staff.
Ms Nicholls added: “I don't think we can give the hospitality we would like to around Christmas because we would like to be operating at full strength and full capacity and not turning away business,” she said.
“Our supply chain cannot give us any guarantees at the moment about Christmas deliveries, or that everything will be delivered at the right place, at the right time, and at the right price.”
Supermarket chains were keen to ease customers’ fears around shortages, however. Morrisons said its deliveries were running as normal and it had not been experiencing major supply issues.
Sainsbury’s boss Simon Roberts said longer-life products, such as Christmas cakes and puddings, mince pies, nuts and cranberry sauce, were available as normal, although he conceded that there were “industry-wide supply challenges on some stock”.
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