John Shepherd, Partridges: “2020 forced us back to basics”

20 January 2021, 08:34 AM
  • How did one of London’s most iconic retail establishments fare over the pandemic? John Shepherd, MD of Partridges, lets Speciality Food in on the details
John Shepherd, Partridges: “2020 forced us back to basics”

“The simple business of designing and making a product which does what you said it would and delivering it to the person who ordered it, on the day you promised, for the price you agreed, and then collecting the money and recording the whole transaction somewhere where you can find it and stay in business requires quite a number of separate bits of efficiency.”

These wise words belong to Anthony Jay and can be found in his book Management and Machiavelli. Considering they were published in 1967 they seem relevant equally today, if not more so, than the 1960s. The book was a recommended text for undergraduates in the 1970s – and possibly should be one for anyone who runs a business. The only words I would add to his statement would be “and keep doing it over and over again come rain, shine or pandemic”.

For the costs of running a speciality food shop in a high profile location with rents, rates, service charges, staffing costs, insurance concerns and professional expenses dictate that the ‘separate bits of efficiency’ need to be successfully completed over and over again.

In many ways 2020 forced us back to basics. Closing unproductive parts of the business, clarifying core values, simplifying communication and reviewing product listings to name a few. Maintaining an optimistic attitude while surrounded by the distractions of a hostile trading environment is a challenge in itself.

The year, in fact, got off to a promising start with sales at Partridges up in January by 6.5% and then in February by 18%. February was helped by not only being a Leap Year but having five Saturdays – our best trading day of the week.

Then on 23rd March we had Lockdown 1. Sales rose dramatically. It was Christmas in March. There was panic buying and we sold out of all the basics. Overall for the month we ended up being 11.3% up on the previous year. On the downside, 20-plus staff were self-isolating and it became challenging to keep open. These were very anxious days.

For April, sales rose by 3.2% as things settled down. The specific location of individual shops was of imperative importance. I believe only ourselves and Boots remained open at our end of the King’s Road, and the area sadly resembled something of a ghost town with no passing ghost trade.

Our café remained closed throughout the lockdown in line with everyone else, and sales were down in May by 3% and June by 2.6%. There was no early summer bounce at all. No Flower Show, no King’s Road vibe and no fetes nor festivals. Things got decidedly worse for us during the Eat Out To Help Out scheme, when restaurants opened.

Customers returned to hospitality or second homes and our wine sales and take away offerings suffered. With no overseas visitors this year takings dropped in July and August by 16.5% and 12% respectively. September was down but by just under 1%. To complete the year October showed a rise of 3.2%, November of 1.4% and as I write this we are exactly neck and neck with last year’s sales.

Overall for the year we will be pretty much level with 2019. As the renowned philosopher Sir Karl Popper once wrote: “Optimism is a duty”. In speciality food we have so many other duties to perform – but perhaps this is the most important of them all.

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