Unwrapping the rise of luxury advent calendars

From socks to sriracha, it seems almost every brand has hopped on the advent calendar bandwagon. Can the Christmas craze continue forever?
Advent Calendar Illo 1x

It started as a fun DIY project. Back in 2014, PR worker Annem Hobson noticed there were plenty of chocolate advent calendars but none for cheese lovers like her. So she made her own version out of cardboard and supermarket cheese and wrote about it on her food blog. To her surprise, the post quickly went viral and was picked up by international media.

“It just seemed to really capture people’s imagination,” Hobson says with a laugh. “Advent calendars have always had an emotional pull… plus, people just really love cheese.” 

Realising she was on to something, she spent the next Christmas making a website, whipping up customer interest and contacting suppliers. After linking up with cheese manufacturer Ilchester, the calendar, which contains 24 individually wrapped cheeses, became a huge success, selling more than 1.3 million to date and spawning a host of copycats. 

Little slices of luxury

Hobson’s calendar, it turned out, was riding the crest of a wave of popularity for advent calendars aimed at adults. Step into any department store in late November and you will find dozens of glittering calendars to suit many tastes or whims. Boots stocks 56 varieties, Harrods 17 – ranging from £20 for a version with coffee capsules up to £470 for Dior’s luxe gold-and-navy iteration.

Boring old chocolate is all but banished. There are gin calendars, lipstick calendars, nut butter calendars. Calendars filled with hand cream, Lego, dog treats, scented candles, jam, bath bombs, CBD, sex toys, Star Wars socks, marshmallows, beard oils, rum, sriracha sauce, herbal teas, face masks, and even miniature vinyl records to play on a miniature gramophone.

Many of these do not come cheap. Liberty’s 12 Days of Jewellery calendar, festooned in peacock feather print, costs £845. Swarovski’s is £630, while Fortnum and Mason’s spirits and liqueurs version is a relative steal at £250. Even a luxury chocolate calendar will routinely set buyers back £40 or more.

That’s a far cry from the calendar’s humble beginnings, when early 20th-century Germans would open paper doors to reveal a daily Bible verse. Today, they have become micro-slices of luxury in whimsical, colourful and decidedly impractical packaging. And there’s no sign that the trend is slowing down.

“The number of inquiries that we have is massive. It’s just consistently gotten bigger and bigger every year,” says Tom Bosanquet, director of Wrapology. The luxury packaging company has been designing and manufacturing advent calendars for brands for almost two decades, at first chocolate but in recent years perfume and jewellery, too. 

Last year, 34% of British adults said they had an advent calendar. It is hard to tell exactly how many are sold each year because the market is so fragmented, but the most popular sell out year after year. The waiting list for No7’s £140 beauty advent calendar opened in August this year.

A win-win-win for sales

“It’s a win-win-win for consumers, brands and retailers,” says Dominic Miles, partner and co-head of consumer at LEK Consulting, of the trend. For consumers, “It’s festive, it’s fun, it feels like a manageable treat in bite-sized pieces that plays into ‘I’m worth it’, affordable luxury and latent childhood Christmas memories,” he explains.

It’s festive, it’s fun, it feels like a bite-sized treat that plays into childhood Christmas memories

“It gives you a chance to experience more expensive brands in a small format. Therefore, you can rationalise that it’s better value for money than buying the whole thing, and you can experiment with products.”

That is music to the ears of brands, who are always looking for new ways to package up existing products and encourage gifting. Instead of buying just one set of earrings, people might now be tempted to shell out hundreds for 24 different items of jewellery. Some beauty brands have seen their sales boosted by 15 to 20% after introducing a calendar.

Almost all calendars are advertised as discounted compared to the price of buying each item individually – for example, the Debenhams £90 beauty calendar claims to contain £280-worth of products – making the purchase feel like value for money as well as luxurious. “That’s magic territory for getting people to spend more than they’re otherwise intending to,” says Miles.

Because the products are sold as a bundle, calendars help brands shift old stock that might otherwise be sitting in a warehouse. Meanwhile, they encourage consumers to try new products, which can be tricky in many categories. Hobson notes that the cheese calendar usually includes a recently developed flavour – including, one year, a divisive crystallised ginger Wensleydale – which buyers can comment on and perhaps even buy a full-sized version.

Ready for Instagram

Then there are the promotional benefits. Miles sees advent calendars as an unrivalled way to communicate brand values throughout a full month, “like a long series of microdoses”. The drip-drip-drip of products works perfectly for influencers, giving them something to share over a period of weeks, while all that sumptuous packaging is super Instagrammable. There’s always a chance that the calendar itself will become an event – perhaps selling out in record time – while lifestyle magazine roundups provide yet another promotional push. 

Sometimes that increased attention can backfire. Last year, Chanel’s calendar was slated by TikTok reviewers, who may not have all paid the full price tag of £610 but universally felt the gifts, including several branded sticker sets, were lacklustre. It shows the pressure that brands can come under to create a product that looks and feels luxe. “A lot of them would say, look, we just need something that’s really, really impressive and will get us a lot of PR and marketing space,” says Bosanquet. 

He points to this year’s Jo Malone Jo Loves calendar, which his team designed to look like a half-metre-high house of cards, or Astrid and Miyu’s gold-foiled Zodiac-themed version. This kind of highly customised work can get complex quickly, he explains, with each brand requiring several rounds of design concepts, numerous product samples and testing to ensure the packaging is sturdy enough. The calendars are hand-assembled in Wrapology’s south China factory before being shipped to the UK to be stuffed full of treats.

The Wrapology team assembling an advent calendar

The boom continues

Orders are already flooding in for 2023, Bosanquet says. But how long can the craze really last? Search volumes peaked in 2020 when lockdowns led to a rise in interest in everyday luxuries. Today, the cost-of-living crisis is squeezing Christmas budgets. Then there’s the issue of sustainability – will eco-conscious consumers really want to keep splurging on 24 miniature products swathed in packaging?

However, advent calendars are just the type of gift that more often sees people trade down for cheaper options than cut it out entirely in a downturn. While sustainability is a concern, it is manifesting in brands seeking out plastic-free packaging, certified paper and frequent insights into the manufacturing and assembly process. 

In fact, Wrapology is now fielding enquiries into ways to keep calendars going year-round: brands are seeking to create generic countdown calendars that might mark down the days to a birthday or anniversary. The trend’s days, it seems, might not be numbered after all.