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As one of the capital’s most iconic retail establishments - HRH Queen Elizabeth herself is a regular customer - Partridges is not only relied upon by locals and visitors, but international shoppers too. With travel paused and footfall decreased, how is the business approaching the upcoming festive season? Over to John Shepherd, MD…
Christmas is a vital trading period
Christmas is still the most important trading time of the year at Partridges and contributes up to 20% of the annual takings. It is more than about sales, however, it is a time when we engage with local customers through tastings, promotions, mulled wine offers and discussions about the annual decorations.
There is a buzz in the air and somehow this year we must try to bottle it in a socially distanced way. More this year than ever before. With less organised activities we must strive to keep the Christmas spirit going. The challenge is to maintain sales while adjusting to lower footfall. Throughout this year and the Coronavirus period, our footfall has been down. This has been balanced by a rise in average spending. This could actually be a redistribution of average spends rather than a rise. Passing trade tends to spend less than loyal locals and we have lost a lot of passing trade.
Creating a festive feel
We do not have very large shop windows so internal decorations are extremely important. As we have closed our in-store café we are planning to turn that area into our new Christmas shop with an adjacent Hamper Ordering Department. We use a lot of traditional Christmas decorations, but pride of place is the large pear tree with golden pears and a partridge on top. The Partridge in a Pear Tree is a strong image at Christmas and for speciality foods. We have in the past made our own Partridge and Pear Pie. Own label products always sell well. Smoked salmon, champagne, gin, jams, teas, biscuits, gifts etc. Some ideas work better than others. A few years ago we had the brilliant idea of a life size Advent Calendar with a countdown through the 24 Days to Christmas, however it just didn’t work in the manner we intended. On the other hand, some small and perceived to be insignificant items can suddenly act as an inspiration to customers.
Maximising community spirit
This year will be our 49th Christmas. We have over the years tried to build a reputation for being the local larder, the go-to place for everything edible - especially at Christmas. We have got to know a lot of local people and often generations of the same family so we try to maintain these vitally important relationships. We get a lot of positive support from the local community as well as robust criticism where necessary. Community spirit can be engendered through appropriate signage. Not just advice and greetings to customers but helpful signposting to where the Christmas favourites are residing. Christmas displays can not only confuse customers and blind them to the essentials, they can also act like an obstacle course and disrupt regulars who know what they want. One of our biggest problems at Partridges is receiving deliveries. The delivery window we have every day is just 2 hours and 45 minutes in the early morning. There is a lot of stock waiting to be put out around the shop and this - not unreasonably - annoys elderly customers, mothers with children and me who can’t find what they are looking for or get around the shop with ease.
Maintaining your audience
Locals are for life – not just for Christmas. We hope that for 11 months of the year we make a positive impression and they know what we do for the 12th. We have always had a monthly newsletter which alerts customers to ideas old and new, and of course our annual Christmas catalogue that highlights hampers and gift ideas.This year we are making tweaks to our website for online gift vouchers, bespoke hampers, cases of wine and promoting the products of smaller start-ups. Tourists are something of a bonus and we haven’t seen too many in recent months. We do get ‘local tourists’, however, who live in London but are from diverse countries around the world. Primarily the US and Japan. The products they buy seem to be holding up. We have had a flurry of small export orders and an increase amount of enquiries from overseas in the past month or so.
A new approach
The situation in 2020 is changing from month to month and it is very difficult to plan based on the experience of previous years. If I had written this in July or August I would have projected a gloomier outlook. However as it is now halfway through September there has been a return to a historical trading pattern. We are down on previous years but to a much lesser degree than the last two months. Going forward there are all sorts of considerations to take into account. The weather has been good recently, schools are back and life is returning to a form of normality in slow motion. We have reduced some Christmas orders by between 10 and 20% but others we have kept the same. As time goes by we are becoming more optimistic about it being a reasonable Christmas. But one single event, lockdown, curfew or spike can alter things overnight. The main thing is to be positive – we’re all in this together.
As a final comment, Christmas is often the only yardstick by which different years are widely viewed as a success or a disappointment in speciality foods. The year can be going reasonably well, Easter a pleasant surprise and a summer of good weather, but if Christmas is not as good as expected it has proportionately a bigger impact on morale and forward planning. When I look back on previous sales figures it is always November and December that I look for first. If you cannot pull in the punters then it’s very much back to the drawing board with a stiff drink. Or a stiff drink without the drawing board. Despite the year in which everything has been turned upside down, and that things we thought would never change have changed forever, Christmas is still here to stay - for a few years yet.