“Brexit or Breginning?”

12 July 2016, 09:11 am
Expert Eye by John Shepherd

To be uncertain is to be uncomfortable. So runs half a Chinese proverb. As a retailer I can readily agree with that

Managing a business on a daily basis means any form of uncertainty is unwelcome and, depending on its nature, can seriously affect sales.

Once upon a time, we tried to sell one of our shops to a multiple. It seemed a good deal but it dragged on and a feeling of foreboding sprung up that it was not going to happen.

As weeks passed, sales dropped, customer attendance became unreliable, staff became depressed and it turned into one of the most unpleasant experiences of our working lives.

The moment arrived when the deal did actually break down, and there came a sudden sense of energy and relief. Stock levels returned to normal and so did the customer count, albeit rather more slowly than we had hoped for.

But life went on, and despite it all the shop did not close and the end of the world was postponed. And so it is with other uncertain events. Over the years we have had our fair share of floods, fires, road closures, extreme weather conditions (I am talking about central London here, so please indulge me) threats of terrorism, changes of government, VAT increases, staff shortages, rent increases, new competition, rogue contractors, refrigeration breakdowns, rampant shoplifters, street riots, transport strikes and several other horsemen of the apocalypse turning up unannounced. At various stages it has been thought “This is the worst problem we have ever had to face” and I have spent lots of money trying to avoid the likelihood of uncomfortable situations, often unwisely. In fact, looking back, the periods of high uncertainty and anxiety are often followed by periods of energy and growth.

The best insurance policy of them all in my experience is to build good relations with as many people in your own organisation as possible. I am pleased to say that a number of our senior staff have been with us for a considerable period of time. (Although we are ready to acknowledge that we may not have treated them on every occasion as well as we should have done).

A mature management team may bring its own problems such as risk aversion, complacency and reduced energy levels, but in my view these are far outweighed by the positive effects of teamwork, trust, loyalty and camaraderie that many of us have experienced. Only when this environment exists can you hope to build the same positive relations with customers. Of course, nobody is perfect, but it is generally better to work to improve the problems internally rather than resort to a parting of the ways.

Which brings me on to Brexit. By the time this article is published the EU Referendum will be over. The build up to it for those of us on the sidelines has been a not very pleasant experience. Both confusing and divisive. Coupled with this, the sales in our shops have been somewhat lacklustre compared to last year. Of course the weather plays its part, but I also think there is a background of gloom and uncertainty as the future of the country seemingly hangs in the balance. Talking to friends, colleagues, market traders and the like, so many are still uncertain as to how they are going to vote. It is actually difficult to predict which way they are thinking, and surprisingly some of those with backgrounds from beyond these shores are keener to vote Leave. I always thought that instinctively the speciality food sector would be more inclined to vote remain.

Also, whatever the result ,the fear is that the genie is out of the bottle and the debate will rage on indefinitely. My views about uncertainty probably give away my own thoughts on the result I would prefer, but, as with all the other uncertain events I have listed above, there will be something good to come out of it. Some of the worst decisions we have ever taken occurred when we have been of one voice. I am thinking here of the appointment of software providers, cavalier price reductions, cavalier price increases, a new shop location or refurbishment for example. When we first joined Nisa many years ago there was a feeling that we were going to lose our independence, but to have not joined would have been a mistake. On one occasion we unanimously decided on a terrible colour scheme for one of our shops. It seemed a brilliant idea at the time but just looked so wrong when finished, so perhaps uncertainty in small doses can be positive.

The Chinese Proverb above in its complete form actually goes: “To be uncertain is to be uncomfortable, but to be certain is to be ridiculous.”

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