Christmas 2006 has come and gone. Prior to Christmas there were the motivational articles to get your teams to increase sales over the busy period and we have now had the financial reviews on how successful the Yuletide trading was compared to other years, but what were the retail trends this last year and what can we introduce this year. Over the Christmas period I had the opportunity to review the retail scene in South Africa, France, Australia, Ireland and the United Kingdom and to identify some merchandise and display trends that will help you start planning for 2007. It Was a Black Christmas Lets start by going back to Christmas 2005 when there was quite a surprise by some retailers in the United Kingdom that the customer had gone black and started purchasing black artificial Christmas trees. Most retailers I spoke to that year found that black trees were the fastest seller. Look around Paris this Christmas and it is clear that black is still in, many retailers were promoting the black tree look with silver trinkets, it looks quite stunning. How long this fad will stay for is difficult to tell. Having said that 80% of the French still prefer a live tree in their homes. Gone are the days when decorating the room was to put up some trimmings and place a Christmas tree in the corner. The big trend, wherever I went was for full table decorations for Christmas. Retailers who sold the complete package were the real winners. Lifestyle Garden Centre in South Africa often gets UK department store retailers checking them out for ideas and a visit to them before Christmas, I can understand why. They had a stunning Christmas department, I was working with them in mid November and they had sold out of most of their table decoration concepts already! They provided the customer with six theme room and table decorations for Christmas, and you guest it, one was black. The customer could not help but buy the table setting rather than a few babbles. I first saw this trend in the UK in 2005, but this year it has been a real strong trend. Frame the Merchandise One trend in merchandising this last Christmas was to frame the merchandise display with a Christmas decoration, this square and rectangular look was very evident in France, with some retailers also framing the entrance to the store and their windows as well. This gave a very strong impact and made the store stand out. If nobody is doing this near you, then I would introduce this as a decorating statement in 2007. The Christmas decorating of merchandise that became very evident to me was either a high tech approach or a natural look. There is a trend to combine the natural and high tech, especially using the Christmas tree shape. Boss, the fashion house, in Paris used red coloured bamboo to create the Christmas tree shape as a statement at the entrance to the store and throughout the store, this was then followed through with flower arrangements using smaller red bamboo poles mixed in with the flower arrangement. Another store in Paris created an excellent shop window display using red carrier bags to create a Christmas tree as a statement. This could be used in any retail establishment with the same spectacular effect. At the same time I saw less Poinsettia flowers being promoted as a Christmas icon in displays and I wonder whether this is becoming a dated festive plant. Having said that I observed excellent sales of the plant for home consumption. In retail displays the Christmas rose or Poinsettia seems to have been replace by red or silver sprayed contorted willow twigs Umbrellas of Snow Snow is a rare commodity in South Africa in December which is why I was intrigued with the umbrella and artifical snow in a display at Sunkist Garden Pavilion in Johannesburg. The customer was encouraged to walk by a flurry of snow in the display, this was such a simple, but novel approach it got the customers and me into the Christmas room and into the spirit of the season. Whilst in South Africa I was impressed with the way Sterkloof Garden Pavilion used red and white paint on fencing and pallets to create a simple festive display for outdoor retail material. Hang The Trees Christmas trees can be the most difficult products to merchandise, you often see them stacked in a corner, how the customer is expected to enjoy the experience is beyond me. I was therefore surprised and impressed with Ross Weightmanï¿½s merchandising system at ï¿½Plants R Rossï¿½ at Easington in Co Durham, England. He hangs his trees. Trees are placed in rows and hung, literally by the neck so that they are displayed as a forest. This allows the customer to feel like they are walking through a forest and can compare individual trees and then select their tree for its unique traits compared to other trees. This is a great way of merchandising and something other retailers could easily adopt. Christmas is a great opportunity to really develop a theatrical experience for your customers, but you need to start planning now. A.I.D.S at Christmas The pink ribbon campaign for breast cancer has been a huge success and many retailers around the world have got behind this campaign. Zara, the Spanish fashion store is the only store that I came across that is behind the A.I.D.S campaign and using the red ribbon logo and campaign as part of their Christmas promotion and awareness. The success of the pink ribbon campaign where retailers have got behind such a worthy campaign surely means more retailers should be getting behind the red ribbon campaign. I expect to see more retailers using this as part of their Christmas campaign in 2007. A.I.D.S. will hit more of the world conscious and retailers can do a lot to promote the awareness in the publics mind. Consumers are more likely to purchase from a business that they perceive as a caring business, especially if it is a cause they also believe in. While we are looking at world issues I was impressed with Botannic, the French Garden centre chain who are building their point of difference around being a sustainable business. In this era of global warming, being a sustainable business is important in the consumers mind, the companies literature, including their Christmas promotional literature promotes the benefits of being a sustainable business and what it means to the environment. Garden Centres are the Category Killers When it comes to Christmas decorations, the garden centre industry has become the international category killer. In nearly every country, except Australia, the garden centre has become the destination for the Christmas period. I do not understand why the Australian industry has not developed this category. I used to be told it was because the southern hemisphere homeowner did not decorate at Christmas and then I was told it clashed with spring plant sales, but when you look at the South African garden centre industry, one can see the benefits it brings to sales in the early southern hemisphere summer. I had to go to the local gift shop to get our decorations. The garden centreï¿½s that really got Christmas right, that I saw, were Lifestyle in South Africa and Wheatcroftï¿½s in Nottingham, United Kingdom. Both excelled in the way they merchandised and displayed the Christmas message.