Hot cross buns at Coles supermarket bakery cnr Tooronga and Toorak rds.

Early risers: A fresh batch of hot-cross buns at a Coles store in Glen Iris. Photo: Ken Irwin

It is a retail tactic that has many shoppers hopping mad. But the big supermarkets claim the trend to sell hot-cross buns when consumers are still clearing their fridges of Christmas leftovers is being driven by demand.

Hot-cross buns went on sale at Coles and Woolworths on January 1 this year - almost four months before Easter.

''We sell hot-cross buns from this date because we know there is strong demand for them,'' Coles spokesman Jon Church said.

''Last year in January alone we sold more than 7 million individual buns and went on to sell more than 40 million buns in total.''

Woolworths expects to sell more than 50 million individual hot-cross buns leading up to Easter.

''They are extremely popular, our customers love them and they are one of our highest-selling bakery items in the lead-up to Easter,'' a Woolworths spokeswoman said.

A small selection of Easter eggs also started hitting supermarket shelves in early January, with more products to be added in the coming weeks and months. While many consumers see the early sale of Easter products as opportunistic commercialism, the supermarkets maintain it is about choice.

''We believe in offering customers choice … But we understand that some customers would prefer to wait and they, of course, have that choice because they do not have to buy the buns,'' Mr Church said. He said just like the early sale of Christmas decorations, putting Easter eggs on shelves early enabled customers to spread the cost of buying Easter products over a longer period of time.

''We know that many customers like to spread the cost of buying Easter gifts by buying some each week, and so offering an early selection helps them to do this.''