Christmas is a Time for Giving
The festive season is a time when we open our hearts, and also our wallets
Lithuanians celebrate Christmas merrily, generously and with much food and drink. They buy a lot of provisions, and decorate their homes and trees, under which a pile of presents awaits them on Christmas morning.
Officially, the season begins in early December, when the big Christmas tree is put up in Cathedral Square in Vilnius, and white bears, reindeer, elves and other companions of Santa Claus appear amid the sparkling lights in shop windows.
Many producers and traders start their preparations for the season much earlier, half a year or even more. At Christmas people open their hearts to each other, and their wallets to the biggest shopping spree of the year.
If we were to compare the statistical Lithuanian with the statistical British person, for example, it would be hard to expect the sack of a Lithuanian Santa Claus to be of a similar weight.
If we assess Lithuanians according to the share of their income that they spend on food, we could say that we live in a country that is not too developed. We spend 42.8% of our income on food, 24.8% of it on our homes, 7.2% on clothes and footwear, 6.5% on alcoholic beverages and tobacco, and only 5.1% on leisure, such as travel, entertainment and culture.
Yet Christmas is a special time, and at the end of the year Lithuanians allow themselves to spend a lot more on expensive food and on better drinks, on decorating their homes and offices, on presents not only for their children, but also for other members of their families, their colleagues and friends. Thus, the last month of the year, and especially the days just before Christmas and the New Year, are for salespeople not only a period of hard work, but they also bring the highest monthly turnover. This can be seen clearly from the statistics.
In December 2002, the turnover of retail companies (excluding motor vehicles and motorcycles) grew by 25.9% compared to the previous November. It grew by 26.1% for companies trading in food, and by 31.8% for shops trading in foodstuffs, alcohol and tobacco.
For companies trading in goods other than food, the highest growth in turnover was among shops dealing in bodycare products, at 95.3% more than in November. In total, 83.9% more household appliances and television and radio equipment were sold in December.
The average statistical resident of Lithuania is 37.2 years old (34.8 for men, and 39.4 for women). One in four residents is retired (27.3%), and one in four is at school or university.
The average Lithuanian lives with his family in their own dwelling of 58 sq m. He shares one colour TV, half a car and half a bicycle with the family. Income per person came to 406 litas a month. During the year each of us ate 44 kg of meat, 281 kg of milk and dairy products, and 14.4 kg of fish, and drank ten litres of alcoholic beverages.
No Sweets, No Presents
The fact that each of us consumes 32.4 kg of sugar a year probably indicates that we are a nation of sweet eaters. Children cannot imagine Christmas without sweets. Santa’s most common present in schools and kindergartens is a colourful bag of sweets. Therefore, early in November, assorted Christmas sweets from all over Europe start appearing on the shelves of shops.
Yet we prefer Lithuanian sweets, and are justly proud of the country’s achievements in this field. The Rūta sweet factory in Šiauliai is the country’s oldest confectionery company, and has been producing sweets for 90 years.
Rimantas Gluodas, the deputy director, says that during the run-up to Christmas they produce and sell 50% more than usual. Their average is 150 tonnes of sweets a month, but in December they produce and sell well over 200 tonnes. Most of their output goes to supermarkets and the factory’s shops, of which there are four.
There are 20 specialised sections in different Lithuanian towns. They export about 20% of their output. For the Christmas season, the factory took on an extra shift of 12 people, working in packaging and on the production line.
“Last year boxes and baskets were very popular with customers,” says Gluodas. “We are producing some this year too.
“We make special sweet presents of seven kinds, at prices ranging from three to seven litas. These include a large variety of sweets: caramel, sugar-glazed marzipan, prunes or bananas, chocolate truffles.
“Orders for the festive season are also very popular. A company or organisation may order ready-made presents. Such special orders make up fifteen to twenty per cent of our Christmas season production.”
December is also a month with a special turnover in bookshops. People buy books happily for Christmas, and not only for their children. In December sales of fiction and beautifully produced expensive books rise to record levels.
The average monthly turnover of the Baltos Lankos bookshop, which stocks over 30,000 titles, is about 300,000 litas. Usually in December sales more than double.
If Christmas is not Christmas without presents, New Year wouldn’t be New Year without sparkling wine. Another company that experiences a dramatic jump in turnover at the end of the year is Alita, a firm producing sparkling wine. In December 2002, it sold drinks worth 14.49 million litas, twice its monthly average.
A Place to Find a Present
“I think we dictate fashion and develop customers’ taste,” states Agnė Dulskienė, marketing director of Lėvuo, which owns Imitz, a chain of clothes shops, and the Dorado gift shops.
The Dorado chain is only three years old. Everything started from one small gift shop in Panevėwys. At present, it has 13 shops in the main cities, and one in Riga. Dorado gifts include luxury jewellery and modern bijouterie, tableware, ornaments, knick-knacks and business gifts.
They buy all their goods from Italy, Denmark and Germany. They sell Recarlo and Dini Giorelli jewellery, Chat Mool silver, Pilgrim and Dyrberg/Kern bijouterie, Leonardo and Menu glass articles and tableware, and gifts made by other firms. Some shops sell ceramics decorated with national symbols or folk motifs. These are souvenirs intended for foreigners.
Dulskienė is convinced that Lithuanians have good taste.
“Sometimes we stock very unusual things, and we don’t know if they will appeal to our customers,” she says. “But usually they accept our ideas.
“But we know another thing as well: that Lithuanians are rather conservative. For this reason, we still do not bring jewellery such as diamonds on a silk thread or articles in pink gold which is so fashionable at the moment. Our customers are not ready for that yet.”
Dorado is trying to maintain the status of a real showroom. Products by many firms can be found only in their shops, and they import many one-off articles. Fashions in interior design and jewellery change rapidly; therefore, in order to suit the tastes of customers, they have to find a balance between the name of a famous firm and the price.
By mid-October the showrooms usually have their Christmas collections ready, and in mid-November they appear in the shops. The first Christmas shoppers appear early in December. They usually buy knick-knacks that create a festive mood, such as reindeer with scarves, pink piglets with feather wings and snowmen made of cloth. The real Christmas shopping starts in mid-December, and during this month the turnover almost trebles.
Women like choosing their presents themselves. They usually know what they want. They often come into the showroom with their partners, and show them the ring, bracelet, earrings or necklace they would like for Christmas. A couple of days or weeks later the man will come to the shop alone, so at least some element of surprise is preserved.
Often women come to buy presents for themselves, sometimes with their partners, from whom, before buying what they want, they want at least verbal approval. As for candlesticks and small ornaments, women buy them on impulse without needing any special occasion.
“Actually, women are the backbone of our business,” says Dulskienė. “They take care of the home, they need modern jewellery.
“Although we have bracelets, rings and neck jewellery for men, it doesn’t sell well. To compare Lithuanian and Latvian men, the latter like jewellery more.
“In general, Lithuanians, both men and women, do not like glittery clothes and jewellery in the daytime. They prefer it for the evening, for special occasions. Latvians are more daring in this respect, probably because they have more Slavic blood in them.”
“We have a lot of regular customers,” Dulskienė says. “I’m always impressed by one elderly teacher who buys his wife each Christmas a luxurious ring with the same stone.
“Our sales figures show a general tendency: that people’s purchasing power is growing. They are buying more and more luxurious jewellery and modern ornaments, and looking for exclusive items.”
About Pearls and Stuffed Goose
In the large supermarkets the Christmas trade begins in the first days of November. Yet this is usually just a hint of what is to come.
About mid-November most shops light their Christmas illuminations and decorate their shop windows. Trading in Christmas presents and seasonal goods reaches its climax in the last week of December.
“Bearing in mind that many of our customers want to save time, we try to create for them such conditions for shopping that after us they won’t need to go anywhere else,” says Viktorija Jakubauskaitė-Juodišienė, PR officer for the VP Market chain.
This network of supermarkets, accounting for 30% of the country’s retail trade, has 185 trading outlets in all the main cities and the regions. It also has 69 shops in Latvia, and one in Estonia.
Recently, in the large shopping centres, we have been able to buy not only food and consumer goods but also expensive cosmetics, good perfume, exclusive haberdashery and expensive jewellery. This lures the customer into buying presents right there and without thinking much.
Traditionally, the most popular presents in supermarkets are sets of cosmetics, tableware and toys. People also buy beautifully packed boxes of expensive sweets, wine that costs hundreds or even a thousand litas, and expensive books.
“We know that our customers have very different incomes,” says Jakubauskaitė-Juodišienė. “Therefore, we try to ensure that everybody finds something in our supermarkets: the person who is trying to buy something cheap, and the person who is looking for products from famous firms or gourmet food.
“We have noticed that our customers are paying more and more attention to the quality of the goods. If a few years ago it was the cheapest goods that would go first, now people are often choosing more expensive higher-quality goods.”
Recent years have seen a sharp change in the toys in shopping centres. We can find both cheap toys and the latest fashions in Europe. When buying presents for their children, customers in shopping centres do not begrudge their money for computer games, bicycles, skis, soft toys, Lego or puzzles. Barbie dolls, with all their accessories, and Harry Potter also have their admirers in Lithuania.
Shopping centres also tempt their customers into letting them take responsibility for the food. Ready-made dishes or pre-cooked foods of over 40 kinds for the festive table are displayed in shop windows, or catalogues try to convince customers that it is not worthwhile spending their time roasting a goose or a turkey, stuffing a pike, making pâtè or cutting out intricate decorations for various dishes.
And they do it quite persuasively and more effectively every year. Even the most ambitious housewives are not too embarrassed to buy some gourmet dish at least once a year.
Those who doubt their ability to choose the right present can be relieved of the duty by shopping centres which offer gift vouchers. Many company heads solve the problem of buying Christmas presents for their employees this way, and avoid buying something which was not needed.
“Every day about 450,000 people visit our supermarkets throughout the country,” says Jakubauskaitė-Juodišienė. “The buying frenzy, when long queues of fully loaded trolleys reach back from each checkout, starts several days before Christmas.
“On 31 December 2002, VP Market broke its daily turnover record for the entire period of the existence of the company. On that day, customers bought goods worth 16.3 million litas.”
The Pleasure of Choosing Presents
A considerable number of residents of Vilnius try to avoid the large shopping centres, which can be overwhelming with the crowds of people and the abundance of goods. They look for Christmas presents in small specialised shops where they can have a chat with the shop assistants (though not during the days immediately before Christmas), in art galleries, and from folk artists and craftsmen who work at home and sell their wares on the streets.
The Vartai Gallery in Vilnius has organised sales of Christmas miniatures for the last 13 years. Having started with a display on one wall, the gallery now has to be very selective in order to accommodate just some of the works by artists who have expressed a wish to participate. It accepts paintings, graphics, sculptures, ceramics and other works that do not exceed the size of a Christmas card, by both famous and unknown artists. The prices range from 20 to over a thousand litas.
“This is an excellent opportunity to acquire a cheaper work by a favourite artist,” says Nida Rutkienė, the owner of the gallery. “People take advantage of it, especially when they’re choosing presents for their family.”
The Christmas trade on the streets makes both parties happy, that is, customers in search of cheaper presents and craftsmen who have been preparing for the Christmas season for about half a year.
Povilas Karčiauskas and his wife, who live in one of the suburbs of Vilnius, make little lambs, cows, angels, birds and other tiny toys from straw.
“Our cheap souvenirs are excellent decorations for a Christmas tree. After the holiday they can liven up the home and make it warmer,” says Karčiauskas.
They make several hundred of these straw souvenirs, which cost from three to 15 litas and improve their finances considerably.
The street market for Christmas presents in the Old Town is an excellent place to buy quite cheap ceramic, wooden or metal candlesticks, paintings and embroidered pictures, home-made dolls and animals, crocheted tablecloths and napkins, stained glass, and many other things.
Small shops selling tea, which is popular at any time of the year, are swept clean during the Christmas season. Tea packed in a beautiful glass jar, a wooden box or a little bag, a stylish cup, an unusual teapot, a box of ginger sweets or a bamboo coaster are Christmas presents that people often choose for their friends and colleagues, or when they go visiting.
“Our customers start thinking about Christmas early in December,” says Laima, a shop assistant at the Skonis ir Kvapas (Taste and Smell) shop. “Most come first and have a look, ask about something and leave with a tiny purchase.
“Then, when there are just a few days left before Christmas, they all crowd into the shop to buy the things they want. Sometimes the cup or teapot they wanted is gone. Then we have to comfort them and together try to find something else that will do.”
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