“Is the Christmas boom sustainable?”

11 November 2019, 09:50 am
Expert Eye by John Shepherd

This is our 47th Christmas at Partridges.

And although the scent of mulled wine and mince pies and the sound of carols and jingling bells may have diminished in appeal over the past nearly five decades, one thing has not changed. The months of November and December combined account for over 20% of our annual sales. If you add in October it becomes 30%. The next best quarter is quarter two, April to June, which accounts for about 24%.

It is therefore an unavoidable fact that Christmas remains the vital trading period of the year and that without it our shop, and perhaps much of the speciality food industry, would not exist in its present form. So how sustainable is the Christmas period as a lifeline for our businesses? This year the omens for a good year do not appear to be positive.

Retail is in a sorry state. Costs are rising, staff are difficult to recruit, online is challenging, and we have frankly no idea how much Brexit, deal or no deal, will affect us. As a business we have made no contingency plans at all. However, we have been here before. It’s always been something of a bunfight in the past, take last year for example. It was a similar situation but still proved to be our best Christmas ever (albeit by a fraction) with the same background music of Brexit and high street woes.

In fact, sales for December 2019 were 54.6% up on December 1995 – which is as far as my personal records go back. This roughly equates to the retail price index in food over the same period, if my understanding is correct. We have had disappointing Christmases in the past – in fact a consecutive period of four years, from 2000 to 2003, when we were down year-on-year by 7.7%, 7.2%, 4.3%, and 6.4%. The main reason was the arrival of Waitrose a few hundred yards away. We then took the opportunity to move ourselves a few hundred yards in the opposite direction and basically normal service was resumed as soon as possible, with a 13.5% rise in sales.

Our next blip was in 2007, with sales down 7.3%, and I cannot remember any particular reason. The following year was up by 5.6%. Then blip time again in 2013, which was down by 3.7%, but the following year was up by 17.5%. So, if past sales are anything to go by, the good news is that Christmas still seems to have a sustainable future – despite the political background, despite the challenge of online retailers, despite the weather and despite it all.

Long live Christmas. Long live carols and jingling bells. Bring on the mulled wine and mince pies! And good luck to every speciality food shopkeeper and producer in the country!

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