Advents are big business

Calendar market ‘shows no signs of abating’ as tiniest one in a matchbox is launched


From the world’s smallest advent calendar to a jewellery-filled option coming in at an astounding £100,000, consumer expectations have expanded way beyond a twee picture or chocolate treat inside these festive staples.

And the choice now starts with the traditional cardboard with windows to open, going up to calendars housing everything from pet treats and beauty products to gin, toys and books, producing bumper sales for retailers such as Harrods, Boots, Selfridges, Liberty and Fortnum & Mason – and almost every greeting card and gift store offering the kids’ chocolate favourites.

Above: Roger La Borde’s traditional advent calendar cards are great sellers
Above: Roger La Borde’s traditional advent calendar cards are great sellers

This year Marvling Bros unveiled its latest creation of The World’s Smallest Advent Calendar In A Matchbox, which houses 24 magical door-shaped decorations numbered for the days of December leading up to Christmas Eve, all ready to hang on the tree or around the house.

Each festively decorated door belongs to a character from a fairy tale or Christmas story – from Robin Hood to Sleeping Beauty, the company wants people to guess who lives behind each door and, for extra festive frivolity, there’s a knock, knock joke on the back.

“We wanted to create something truly magical, a festive experience that resonates with all ages. It’s more than just an advent calendar; it’s a pocket-sized treasury of nostalgia and stories,” said Emma Dobie, director of Marvling Bros.

Above & top: Marvling Bros’ smallest advent calendar
Above & top: Marvling Bros’ smallest advent calendar

Since Selfridges – which offered a whopping 128 designs last year, more than double its 2021 selection – debuted its first beauty advent calendar in 2011 there’s been a proliferation of different designs catering for all tastes including socks, sauce, jam, candles, tea, cheese, whisky, and gin.

The calendars have religious roots in Germany although the season of Advent dates back to the fourth century, it starts on the Sunday closest to the feast day of St Andrew the Apostle on 30 November, and covers the next three Sundays and up to Christmas Day.

For practical reasons, because the length of the advent season changes from year to year, modern calendars start on 1 December so they run for a set number of days.

In the 19th century German protestants starting marking the days leading up to Christmas in creative ways, such as chalk ticks on walls or doors, lighting candles, and some families hung up a devotional image each day, which led to the first handmade wooden advent calendar in 1851.

Above: Liberty’s 2023 beauty advent calendar – five contain £1,000 golden tickets!
Above: Liberty’s 2023 beauty advent calendar – five contain £1,000 golden tickets!

German publisher Gerhard Lang is credited as the inventor of the printed advent calendar, inspired by the memory of his mother hanging up 24 cookies and allowing him to eat one each day before Christmas. With illustrator Ernst Kepler, Lang produced the first commercial calendar in the early 1900s and brought out the first ones with opening doors in the 1920s.

After WWII soldiers took advent calendars back home, with Richard Sellmer of Stuttgart, whose company still produces over a million a year in 25 countries, starting exporting the tradition of printed designs depicting wintry scenes in 1946, and in 1953 US president Dwight Eisenhower was pictured opening one with his grandchildren, cementing their popularity.

Above: Gin and tea are just a few of Waitrose’s advent products
Above: Gin and tea are just a few of Waitrose’s advent products

The first chocolate-filled calendars appeared in the 50s but didn’t catch on until Cadbury’s started producing them in 1971 with staff hand-inserting the treats, but it was two decades before production techniques made manufacturing easier and cheaper and they went into continuous production.

And Retail Gazette has been looking into this booming business to see if the market is now flooded and the cost-of-living crisis meaning the craze is starting to wane following Liberty’s 2013 version becoming its fastest-selling product in the department store’s 150-year history.

Stylus head of beauty Lisa Payne explained that the exclusivity of bagging an advent from one of the top luxury retailers helped to drive the craze at the beginning: “Liberty’s was the sort of pinnacle. It was hyper-exclusive, ultra-expensive – it wasn’t everyone that had access to it,” she told Retail Gazette.

Above: F&M’s Feasting advent, now on offer at £150 instead of £200
Above: F&M’s Feasting advent, now on offer at £150 instead of £200

And ex-John Lewis senior premium beauty buyer Rebecca Saunders, now director of consumer and retail at Alvarez and Marsal, said retailers are now going bigger and better, moving away from miniature-sized products.

She explained: “There’s been a real push for the retailers from a competitive position to put full-size product in, which drives the value that they can then communicate to the end user.”

Liberty upped the stakes this year by placing golden tickets worth £1,000 each inside five of its calendars, and Harvey Nichols has hidden £100 gift cards inside 50 of its advents.

And as for that £100,000 version, jeweller Lark & Berry has seven 12-day options, ranging from fine gold earrings at £3,500 through to a selection of necklaces, bracelets and earrings at that incredible price.

Above: Lark & Berry’s jewellery calendars go up to £100,000
Above: Lark & Berry’s jewellery calendars go up to £100,000

Retail Gazette’s conclusion is that “the advent calendar business is pretty fool proof” although citing 2022’s Chanel trip-up when its £800 offering simply wasn’t worth the money, and warning to ensure stock levels are right so there’s no cut-price stock come December 2.

Fortnum & Mason buying director Liz Morgan, agrees, telling Retail Gazette the advent calendar market has “expanded hugely in recent years and shows no signs of abating”.

Liz added: “Advent calendars are still big business. Beauty advents tend to generate the most excitement early on but we also sell a lot of tea advents, as well as our unique Feasting advent, which offers a taste of Fortnums every day.”

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