Weathering the retail storm

29 August 2023, 07:00 AM
  • What's the weather got to do with cash in the tills? Everything says John Shepherd
Weathering the retail storm

Running a business in London has been compared to bubble and squeak. We operate in some sort of a bubble, and yet provide an endless commentary of complaints and grievances or squeaks.

However there’s certainly a lot to ‘squeak’ about in recent months.

During the last few years, like emotionally punch-drunk boxers, our businesses have taken a painful hammering, and not least on the physio’s table. We may have landed a few punches in return, but the overall impression, at least for me, has been ‘what more can possibly go wrong?’.

Without mentioning THAT word but ‘you know what’, has definitely interfered with the supply chain and staff recruitment, and the cost-of-living crisis has increased prices on everything in everyday life. The extension of ULEZ to outer London has got many Londoners worked up. Stating the obvious, the energy crisis has increased costs significantly, plus political crises, national scandals, conflict in Eastern Europe and a monthly spectre of transport strikes have all contributed to creating a feeling of almost perpetual dismay. But as I write this, towards the end of summer, yet another old adversarial James Bond-style villain has turned up to add to the struggles of daily commerce.

Though before we get to that, it is worth recording the first six months of 2023 weren’t always so bad despite it all.

For example, in January our sales were nearly 13% up and customers were 8% up. The higher sales, of course, could be accounted for by the increase in retail food costs, as evidenced by the February sales being 19% up, but so was the customer count up at 12% during the quietest month of the year (although in February 2023 the weather was consistently above the yearly average). Easter provided confusing evidence, as usual, but March and April were up 5% in sales and 2% in customers. So far so good one might think. May showed sales up 5.7%, but a drop in customers of 2% - it was a rainy Coronation celebration after all. June was a fraction over 1% up, but had to compete with the previous year’s Platinum Jubilee, and customers were again down this time by 0.6%. But the slightly disappointing early summer trade up to the end of June could not take away from the fact that sales overall were up 10.5% on last year and customers were still up by 3.2%.

Now enter the ‘villain’. Unseasonably strong winds closed our recent Saturday market, and diminished all al fresco operations on the Duke of York Square. This is the first time ever it has happened in July with unseasonal gusts of nearly 50mph being forecast.

Bad days occur frequently, but the following week lightning struck twice in the same place literally, and we recorded our lowest sales ever in recent times for a Saturday when consistent rain stopped pay at the tills. It started at midday and didn’t clock out until after bedtime.

So, as I write this in the last full week of July, our sales are 15% down, and customers are nearly 16% down…and this is in the traditionally quiet third quarter.

It is a very disappointing turn of events for the annual shop results of course, but not hopefully terminal. I often remember Shakespeare’s insightful business tip: ‘for the rain it raineth everyday’ and to ‘make content with (his) fortunes fit’. Which I have sort of interpreted as ‘get over it - there’s not much you can do about it’.

In search of any silver linings we are very fortunate to not have the high temperatures of southern Europe as many customers have reminded me. Unusual weather this unusual is another reminder of climate change, which should spur us all on to reduce our carbon footprints. And it will stop raining eventually if history is anything to go by.

So, despite Shakespeare’s words, let’s hope for a late summer when the rain it stoppeth, the sun it shineth and its not too hoteth. And I can find something else to write about.

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