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For small businesses, 'tis the season of survival

Mario Tama | Getty Images

The holiday season can make or break a business. Have a good Christmas, and you enter the New Year on a sure footing, full of optimism. Have a miserable one and the hangover can be fatal.

Preparation is essential, and at Lingham's Booksellers, an independent book and coffee shop in the Wirral, north-west England and winner of the U.K.'s Independent Bookseller of the Year Award 2013, planning for Christmas begins early. Very early.

"We start right at the beginning of the year, around about January, February time," Eleanor Davies, who co-owns Lingham's with her husband, told CNBC.com. "We start thinking about calendars for the next year and ordering them, we look at new titles that are coming out. In November, we set up a table with impulse buys and Christmas stocking fillers: jokey books, little books about wine, books about punctuation."

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For the team at Lingham's, this kind of preparation is taken incredibly seriously because of what's at stake.

"It's enormously important," Davies said. "I would say a quarter to a third of all the money that we take in the year comes from December alone. We've had a Christmas in the past when we had huge snowfall, and it was absolutely disastrous."

It's not just the weather that small businesses compete against. According to Experian, there were 2.8 billion visits to online retail sites in December 2012, a 30 percent increase on the previous Christmas. In this kind of climate, marketing is essential.

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"It's very important," Davies added. "We go out and do quite a few local Christmas bazaars – one in a school, and a couple in Church halls on Saturdays – which is a really good way of getting our name out into the locality. We're not just expecting people to go to us, we're going out to them to remind them that we're there."

While Davies has experience of handling the Christmas crush, Erin Hurst, co-owner of Provenance, a butcher's in London's Notting Hill, is gearing up for her first, having only opened in July of this year.

Originally from New Zealand, Hurst grew up on a dairy and pig farm in the Bay of Plenty. "My experience has come from growing up on a farm where animals were butchered, so I know about my meat cuts," she said. "But I would certainly never get a knife in my hands, and that's why we've got three fantastic butchers on board who are all very experienced and massively passionate."

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A dry run for Christmas came in the form of Thanksgiving, which saw about 40 turkeys sold to Americans living in London. Christmas promises to be a step up in terms of scale and custom: Provenance expects to sell around 120 turkeys, and between 30 and 50 cockerels (roosters) too, with its mid-range turkey costing £12.50 per kilo.

"It is massively important. From the experience that our butchers have had, the indication is that it would normally account for two to three times a normal month's sales," Hurst said. "We've been planning for it from spreadsheets and a logistical perspective for two months now," she added.

With extra turkeys, cockerels, and customers comes the need for extra hours – in the run up to Christmas, the team will be working until 11pm – and extra staff.

"If you've got 120 turkeys over and above your usual business, they need to be weighed, labeled and packaged in a beautiful presentation box and put together with the customers' other orders and we'll be taking on an extra pair of hands as of this weekend," Hurst said.

With Christmas less than three weeks away, the anticipation is building. "Of course we're nervous, but we're excitedly nervous," Hurst added. "It's like you're training for a big race."

  • Caan is one of the U.K.'s most successful and dynamic entrepreneurs as well as the guest presenter of "The Business Class."

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