Unwrapping Holiday Products: How Early is Too Early to Start Planning?

Nov. 17, 2021
Just as the 2021 holidays are upon us, so is product development time for the 2022 holidays.

The holiday season has long been the biggest sales period of the year for consumer goods. So it’s no surprise that food manufacturers who want in on the action create special products and/or packaging just for the holidays. In fact, many don’t wait for December – these days the parade of holiday products kicks off before Halloween.

“Pringles regularly participates in holiday celebrations with fun packaging, flavors and brand activations throughout the year,” says Shae Feldman, a spokesperson for Kellogg Co., which owns the brand. “For example, Pringles’ recently launched Tailgating Stacks with Kansas City’s wide receiver Byron Pringle and the Turkducken Thanksgiving themed stacks in 2019.”

For Halloween 2021, the company launched glow-in-the-dark packaging and festive names for two of its varieties, “Sour Scream & Onion” and “Oooriginal.”

Countless brands introduce holiday products, and even private brands get in on the fun these days, says Joelle Dove, director of business development for Daymon, a private brand developer.

“When retailers utilize their private brands to introduce new, fun and creative seasonal assortments, they do more than just offer variety; they are emotionally connecting with their customers,” Dove says. “Private brand seasonal assortments meet a consumer desire for seasonal indulgences and fulfill their customers’ excitement to celebrate the season.”

Succeeding with holiday products requires more than tossing a few orange-colored sprinkles on top of a regular product, of course. Long-range planning, careful product development and data-driven production estimates all play a role in ensuring that a food manufacturer’s holiday output ends up on consumer tables and not in store dumpsters on Jan. 2.

Just as the 2021 holidays are upon us, so is product development time for the 2022 holidays.

Planning ahead

The timeline for planning a holiday-themed product varies widely among food processors. For example, when Glanbia Performance Nutrition creates a holiday product, work begins as early as the first quarter of the year. The company released two holiday-themed bars under its Think! brand this year: Pumpkin Spice Latte and Chocolate Peppermint.

“The lead time for development depends on the product and our launch timing,” notes Perri Gordon, vice president and general manager for Glanbia’s Healthy Lifestyle brands. Product development starts with market research to identify holes within the nutrition space they operate in, Gordon says. “It’s usually six to nine months and can be longer based on each development stage.”

Daiya Foods, which launched nondairy Pumpkin Spice Cheezecake few years back and brings it out annually as a seasonal offering, began its work on the product even sooner. Jocelyn Robertson, Daiya’s director of marketing, says the planning for the holiday-themed plant-based cheesecake began a year before its first launch.

“Retailers start thinking of the holidays as early as January, so even if we know we’ll start shipping a product at the end of August, we would be working on it almost a year or year and a half in advance,” Robertson says.

Daymon’s Dove says best-in-class food processors plan their seasonal products 10-12 months ahead of the season, and more if they are inexperienced. She says food processors and their retail partners should evaluate the products from the previous year to identify which worked and which didn’t. “This is an important step at accurately planning seasonal volumes, identifying trends and developing better execution for a winning holiday assortment in the future,” she says.

Companies that rely less on major retailers may be more nimble, as they don’t need to coordinate launches with retail partners. For example, Santte Foods, which sells a large percentage of its product via the internet, can launch a new item within two months, says CEO Luis Sayrols. The company created a Pumpkin Spice version of its Tidbits Fun Bites Meringue Cookies for this holiday season.

Similarly, Proper Good, which sells healthy soup in packets direct to consumers, can get a new product out in a matter of weeks.

“Depending on the complexity of the new product, it can take anywhere from three weeks to three months to develop a final recipe we’re happy with that we think consumers will love,” says Christopher Jane, the company’s co-founder and CEO. “We developed our Spiced Pumpkin Soup in the summer of 2020 and launched it in mid-September for the fall season. We do all recipe development and label design in-house, so it’s very quick once we decide on a plan.”

Developing the product

Creating a successful holiday product involves more than adding pumpkin spice flavor to an existing product (though pumpkin spice does appear to be the magic flavor of the holidays).

For example, Jane says Proper Good regularly makes small batches of new items and gets feedback from existing customers before pulling the trigger. The company opted for the Spiced Pumpkin Soup last year after realizing that most Halloween products are sweet, which makes sense given the popularity of trick-or-treating.

“We wanted to make a spookily good savory item for people to buy and gift,” he says. “We were actually only going to launch this item for six weeks, from mid-September through October 31st, but due to the popularity we decided to keep selling it through the end of the year.”

At Glanbia, because the focus of the company’s products are sports and lifestyle nutrition, new holiday products need to meet high performance standards, Gordon says: “We do research into the premium ingredients we want for the product, ensure the recipe meets our nutritional objectives, and conduct rounds of taste tests to ensure the product meets our high taste standards.”

In addition to flavor, color also is an important part of the holiday product development, notes Emina Goodman, senior director, commercial color development for ADM. ADM’s Colors from Nature portfolio sources hues from botanicals, such as carrots, beets and turmeric.

“Seasons and holidays are a beautiful example of how colors can evoke specific moods and memories,” Goodman says. “During harvest season, we think of bonfires, pumpkins, apples, stew, roasted meats and an assortment of pies. We pair these flavors with cozy shades of caramel, ivory, burnt orange, chestnut and mustard yellow… Christmas treats can be as bright as the bulbs on a tree or as rich as the spices of ginger, cinnamon and clove.”

How much to make?

One key difference between a holiday-themed product and a year-around product is the distinctly shorter selling period. After all, people love pumpkin spice in October and November, but not so much in May and June. So how do food manufacturers plan the right quantity of a holiday-themed product?

When the data is available, food companies making holiday items first examine previous years’ sales to estimate quantity. Then they look at current sales of year-around items, add in advance orders for the holiday items and finally make some educated guesses.

“Our retail partners such as Kroger, Target, Walmart and Amazon provide us with a good sense of forecast numbers, and we analyze our key learnings, which helps set forecasts for the following year,” Gordon of Glanbia explains. “That said, it’s a balance during the season to see the response, adjust if needed, and respond to demand as it develops.”

He adds that the limited season for Glanbia’s seasonal flavors can be a draw. Customers know the company will create a seasonal flavor and that it only will be available for a limited time. Repeat purchases are very high, he says.

Dove notes that working with retail partners early is important because it helps a manufacturer better understand what retailers think will sell well. It also allows the manufacturer and retailer to collaborate on volume forecasts. Furthermore, using syndicated data can help the manufacturer determine previous years’ demand, purchase frequency and the buying timeline, all of which may play roles in determining how much to make this year.

For a company without much historical data to build on or with limited retail partnerships, the equation may be harder. Proper Good, for example, has only been in existence about 18 months, so data about past holiday seasons is skimpy.

“With that in mind, we lean to the side of caution, as selling out of an item can be a good thing and shows high demand while creating some excitement and urgency for customers when we’re low on stock,” Jane says. Most of Proper Good’s sales are direct to consumer, so there’s less concern about dealing with retailers’ long planning periods.

“In terms of establishing a best guess on how much to produce, we have strong data on how many meals per order most people order, how many orders per month and so on. Then we take an approximate percentage of orders we think will include the seasonal item to get us going. We can then assess that in almost real time and make week-to-week decisions on if we need more production.”

Creating holiday products requires research, long-range planning and careful management of the supply chain. But ultimately, according to those interviewed for this article, the efforts pay off.

“Taking the time to invest in seasonal product development for your customers will change the way customers consider you year-round, as well as increasing banner and brand loyalty,” Dove says.

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