John Shepherd, Partridges: “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas”

15 November 2022, 14:19 PM
  • John Shepherd, managing director at Partridges, discusses the state of play for Christmas 2022
John Shepherd, Partridges: “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas”

The nights are drawing in, there is a distinct nip in the air for early risers, and talk about doom and gloom is once more resplendent on the front pages of the national press.

There’s nothing new about all of this of course – just seasonal change. Statements along the lines of ‘Christmas is cancelled’ have been ever present during the two Covid years.

However, what makes it different this year is an alarming new strain of doom and gloom with unprecedented side effects. For example, electricity blackouts, rising inflation, interest rate hikes, spiralling energy costs amid threats of war in Europe. In other words, this existential is bigger than the last existential.

So at a time when Father Christmas must be ramping up the production of toys at the North Pole I thought it would be good to carry out my own poll of confidence levels among small business owners. And who better to ask than the 60 or so Startisans, or start up artisan food traders, who attend our fine food market on the Duke of York Square every Saturday?

As small business people they will be at the sharp end of commercial travail and the vicissitudes of cost increases. Plus a few of them are no strangers to the concept of complaint. So, on Saturday October 8th I conducted an unofficial, unscientific, anonymous, itsy, bitsy, teenie, weenie, yellow, polka dot opinion poll by asking the traders what their view of Christmas 2022 actually is. For example, will it be positive for your business? Will it be negative? Are you a ‘don’t know’? Or should I mind my own business?

For a start, everybody was keen to discuss what the prospects are for them. Some sell basic produce like meat, fruit and veg, bread, cheese, fish, quiches and pies, cakes, pasta and honey. Some sell products that make good gift ideas for Christmas such as chocolates, cakes and alcohol. Some sell hot food for immediate consumption. They range from relatively seasoned old hands to first year newbies. Initially the replies were quite startling but on reflection and considering the context completely understandable.

82% were positive or very positive about Christmas 2022 despite it all. 14% were unsure and just 4% were negative. Initially it looks like some traders are experiencing a messy divorce from reality. However, market traders generally are very positive human beings who nurture and treat their businesses like beloved offspring. As one of them said to me, “If I read the newspapers on a daily basis I wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning”. And there is a feeling that after Covid the viewpoint about a ‘crisis’ has shifted. The traders have become more stoical about the future.

The second distinction to be made is that our market takes place in an area of London that is affluent and where the local community visits not just for the basics but also for treats and unusual artisanal products not frequently found elsewhere.

There was some nuance among the positive responders. Some admitted to being hopeful rather than assured about Christmas and could possibly shift in the next few weeks to the ‘don’t know’ spectrum. Among the ‘don’t knows’ were several people who had only just started their businesses in the last 12 months so were reticent about their prospects for their first ever Christmas.

Finally, the small minority who were feeling negative about Christmas were essentially selling products that are not really seasonal products. They are already feeling the pinch due to rising costs and falling demand. If I ask all the traders the same question in January would the same feeling still be around? However, in the main they are more positive about the challenges and more open to new ideas in developing their businesses.

In terms of existential challenges to businesses, a great book by Rutger Bregman called Human Kind references the Blitz of 1940. On London 80,000 bombs were dropped over a period of nine months. Neighbourhoods were wiped out, a million buildings were destroyed and more than 40,000 people were killed in the UK.

The result was, according to accounts of the time, a ‘calm serenity’ which did not bring out the worst in people but the best. The same thing happened when Britain retaliated against Germany. Both bombing campaigns had the opposite effect of the intended purpose – they actually strengthened morale. A lesson that still can be seen today in Ukraine.

Shops during the Blitz that had windows blown out by bombs put up signs saying “More Open than Usual.” Best wishes for a successful Christmas 2022.

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