“When things go wrong”

29 September 2017, 04:53 am
Expert Eye by John Shepherd

Just over 40 years ago on July 13th, during the summer of 1977, the whole of Manhattan Island and many parts of greater New York suffered an electrical blackout and were plunged into darkness. The cause was found to be a lightning strike on two separate power lines. I was actually in New York and always remember the expression that Consolidated Edison, the power supplier, used to describe the situation: “an act of God”. Scores of supermarkets and speciality food shops went without power for about 24 hours, and who knows how much food went to waste. Perhaps some shops never re-opened

In our 45 years of trading I am pleased to report that we have not endured such a dramatic catastrophe proportionate to the scale of New York City. However, like probably most speciality food shops, we have suffered a series of mini disasters along the way that have undoubtedly challenged and destabilised the running of the business. Fire, flood and flipping blackouts – you name ‘em, we’ve had ‘em.

Fire: We have had two fires at two shops over the years. It is, of course, a very distressing experience. Both fires were caused by electrical faults and the combustible nature of food packaging provides fuel for the flames. In one case the fire was localized, fortunately, but in the other case the shop was completely affected and I made the great mistake of rushing to get the shop to reopen before the smell of smoke had dissipated. This meant for a long time afterwards sales were reduced as customers lacked the confidence to return. The disruption here was measured in months.

Terrorism: As we trade in Central London the threat of terrorism is sadly at a high level, and on a few occasions over the years we have been asked to close our shops due to an incident. The effect of this is more psychological than financial and the damage is not necessarily long term. In fact, the local community tends to rally round on these occasions and remember that having a speciality food shop nearby is in many ways a blessing and that the normal things in life should continue.

On a similar subject, we have had one incidence of cyber terrorism when our software was hacked and the functioning of the tills was put in jeopardy at Christmas trading time. This could have been a protracted and very hazardous event but after taking legal action the matter was, somewhat speedily and surprisingly, resolved.

The above examples of crises have happened over the 45-year lifespan of the business, and while nerve-wracking at the time have ultimately presented less of a challenge than those chronic and prolonged problems faced on a daily or weekly basis. For example shoplifting, food safety concerns, operating cost increases, customer service issues, equipment breakdowns and the interference brought about by local building works to name a few. It is easy to dismiss these as part of retail life but each in their own way can cause significant damage if not addressed as quickly as possible.

The key is to respond quickly, not take it personally and learn as much as possible from the bad times. The continual assertion of a positive outlook is probably the greatest skill you will ever need and the most courageous act you can carry out for the sake of your own business. See New York City for further details…

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