“What’s so good about summer?”

25 August 2016, 14:36 pm
Expert Eye by John Shepherd

For all my working life in speciality food, we have yearned for the balmy, sunshine days of summer when customers seem in a happier frame of mind and have the delightful tendency to spend a little more money in a short space of time prompted by the lure of the al fresco lifestyle

It has become conventional wisdom. During the summer, drinks of all descriptions, salads, teas and coffees, ice creams and a lot of products on the deli counter, all have their moment of prominence, and with every one degree rise in temperature invites a corresponding rise in takings.

There is no doubt that for us better weather equals better sales, but when studying the facts over the whole of the summer period, is this a somewhat shallow conclusion? Does summer benefit our shops as much as we think?

Certainly the summer of 2016 will be remembered as a tempestuous one, at the very least in political circles. The Brexit vote, terrorist attacks in Europe, the rise and fall of Sterling, England’s brief sojourn at Euro 2016 and gloomy weather up until late July have not been national mood enhancers to put it mildly. Several of these issues are also likely to run and run into the future so no sign of a quick fix on the horizon. When summer finally did arrive for us – it was on July 20th to be precise – the temperature hit 30 degrees and what happened next? What happened next was that our air conditioning system spluttered, a couple of fridges broke down and the gallant staff were working in difficult conditions in excess of the temperature outside. Sales of our hot food stopped and we ran out of ice cream. In addition, by then the summer holidays were kicking in and a lot of our regulars had left town. Whenever a heatwave occurs I am reminded of the stirring words of Shakespeare’s Henry V: “Once more unto the fridge dear friends.” Of course he actually said “breach” instead of fridge but he was on the right track. Every time it is hot outside, a constant battle cry goes out to our fridge maintenance people. They in turn never fail to mention that they are quite busy or words to that effect. The simple fact is that no amount of preventative maintenance, constant servicing and twiddling of various control panels seems to be able to prevent fridges from breaking down. There are few things more dispiriting to a shop keeper than seeing an empty fridge in the summer, and the category of dispiriting things to a shop keeper is quite a large one.

Dividing our sales figures into the cooler months of January, February, March, October, November and December, we can see that in actual fact 52.5% of our sales take place in ‘winter’ as opposed to 47.5% of sales in the summer months. That is even bigger than the Brexit majority! Perhaps our customers are voting to leave summer?

Of course the decisive factor in this “as any fule kno” is Christmas, to quote that great social commentator Nigel Molesworth. The Christmas Quarter accounts for over 30% of our annual trade, whereas the January to March Quarter accounts just around 22%. What also does not help our summer is that Easter is a temperamental performer in terms of sales, and the annual holiday season deprives us of a lot of regulars and families, and indeed corporate customers which subdue the overall figures. In addition, we do not benefit from tourists to counteract it all. In fact, for us August only just beats February, and that’s with three extra days.

Of course summer is a much more pleasant time to run a business and the applications to have a stall at our market rise exponentially, but a lot of speciality food shops depend on the winter months just as much as summer, if not more so. In fact, it is probably the diversity of seasonal change that makes our job so much more interesting. It is not just about “cakes and ale.” A reminder of this occurred on a programme I was watching recently about the summer of 1966. England’s victory in the World Cup was very much against a familiar backdrop. The national mood going into the tournament was not great. There were political crises, the team was booed in its initial match, the weather was disappointing, the Cold War, The Vietnam War, the Krays and the Richardsons, strikes, plane crashes and quite a bit more in a similar vein occupied the newspapers. So if we think it is depressing now, it was probably ever thus. In the immortal words of Kenneth Wolstenholme 50 years ago, “They think its all over – it is now!” The fact remains that it never is all over, really.

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