Almost before Santa was back up the chimney this year, the sound of hopping was heard as the Easter bunny came into view. Supermarket Tesco put out Easter ranges on New Year’s Day, even though Easter is late this year, on 24 April, almost a month after the earliest date it could fall, 22 March.

So with the supermarkets all over it for months, how should bakers stake their own claim on Easter? What are some cutting-edge bakers planning, and what is the advice for best-practice from some major suppliers?

Craft baker Richard Bertinet says independents can differentiate themselves from supermarkets through their products’ authenticity. "Make sure products that are handmade, hand-moulded or hand-finished are labelled as such. Use your own bespoke mix of spices in hot cross buns, not a mass market or chemical bun spice mix. The multiples generally offer the same ranges around the country, but you can respond to local demand."

He adds: "Easter has more bakery traditions than either Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day so in theory it should be much better for bakers. You can make hot cross buns, Simnel cake, Easter eggs, nests or anything with a chocolate theme."

Victoria Forward, of Bedfordshire artisan cake company Let Them Eat Cake, thinks supermarkets may be jumping the gun and customers may already be bored of their Easter ranges when the time comes to buy them. She says the key to success for the small business is offering something imaginative. She saw strong sales of "cupcake bouquets" last Mother’s Day, and she is going to adapt the idea for Easter. She plans to sell Easter baskets, with Easter nest cupcakes with mini eggs on them, priced at around £15 for six.

She says: "You have got to be serious about offering something for all the events Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Easter, the Royal Wedding. Special products are a way of introducing yourself to new customers. I see them almost as a loss-leader, a marketing device. I’ve got some great new customers who bought Mother’s Day bouquets last year."

And Angie Townsend of The Tiny Cake Company in North Yorkshire is adamant that artisan suppliers have nothing to fear from the "synthetic" supermarket ranges. She will be offering cake pops (difficult to replicate on an industrial scale), mini-Simnel cakes with marzipan flowers and cupcakes with pink rabbits on them. "Traditional is the way to go", she says, "but we are making it beautiful quality over quantity. We find that small products sell well, people like a little treat, whether for health or price reasons." Attractive packaging and display is vital, as people buy with their eyes first, she adds.

Meanwhile, Anna Gill, from And the Dish Ran Away with the Spoon, says shelf space dictates that Easter lines will only be brought out closer to Easter, despite the supermarkets having fired the starting pistol early. Her café shop in Didsbury, Manchester, will be offering hot cross buns, chocolates, brioches and Simnel cakes.

Supplier angle

Lisa Boswell marketing manager of ingredients supplier CSM, notes that with so many celebrations coming up Easter, Mother’s Day and the Royal Wedding it would be easy to forget to focus on the most profitable products. "Include a mix of ’trend leaders’, such as cupcakes, cake slices and brownies next to your customers’ favourites," she says. "Appealing window displays, in-shop point-of-sale material and on-street advertising, where possible, all help get customers in through doors."

The cup and fairy cakes category is still growing by 22% (Kantar Worldpanel 52 w/e 5 September 2010), so these are a sales opportunity, she says. Brownies are another key line with an 11% growth in sales (by volume Kantar Worldpanel 52 w/e 21 March 2010).

Top tips from CSM include to keep preparation manageable by keeping to a general ’spring’ theme that works across all the April celebrations. "Use pastel colours for icings and toppings and then just add a finishing flourish to tailor to each celebration theme," Boswell advises.

Also give some of your ’bankers’ a seasonal twist or update traditional products. For example, if you make hot cross buns, try spinning some icing over the top of the finished bun. And bake in batches and freeze to save time.

Supplier Macphie’s assistant marketing manager Martin Wright says Macphie research has shown that Easter is one of the top selling periods of the year for the craft bakery sector. In 2011, with Easter occurring later than usual, this is an even more lucrative opportunity, he suggests. Cupcakes are still a hot trend this year, as are whoopie pies, and these offer significant opportunities for adding value, he says.

Jacqui Passmore, marketing manager at Dawn Foods, adds: "Easter is a great time for bakers to get creative, particularly with toppings and inclusions."

And Sara Reid, marketing manager of Rank Hovis says with school holidays on, kids and mums will be looking for novelty treats, such as bees, honey and novelty egg biscuits. She comments: "It’s important to range in a way that appeals to the consumer. Having whole cakes separated from teatime treats and putting your events/occasions together in one section shows off your range and allows you to dress with props and possibly group together for promotions."

Using fresh colours and bright point-of-sale also attracts customers, she says: "Let’s face it, after the winter we’ve had a nice shock of yellow and green will surely lift the spirits."