John Shepherd, Partridges: “There are reasons to be optimistic”

07 April 2021, 09:37 AM
  • Despite the challenges and uncertainty that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought for the retail sector, John Shepherd, MD of Partridges, outlines his reasons to be cheerful in his latest column for Speciality Food
John Shepherd, Partridges: “There are reasons to be optimistic”

I was really hoping that by February Covid-19 would be fast retreating in the rear view mirror of the Partridges electric delivery bike along with Brexit, England’s batting collapses and my painful hip problem. Sadly not so.

Our Covid travails worsened in the first six weeks of the year. We had a local outbreak that rendered eight of our senior team out of action for at least two weeks and a further number of staff self isolating. This was a lot worse than the experience of last year, both in terms of the intensity of the illness suffered and the larger amount of people that were involved.

We were, in fact, very lucky to keep the shop open during some difficult weeks – albeit with earlier closing hours. Sales were down in January by 8% and the customer count fell by 30%. Without the fine food market and the pulling power it brings to the Duke of York Square, our Saturday trading was particularly affected. February sales (as I write this on the 26th) are down by 3.2% and customer count down by nearly 25%. During this time we were also very lucky to have on our team someone who filled the void by becoming a Covid consultant or guiding light of health and safety for the shop.

Through her work we have been able to set up and coordinate an enhanced cleaning regime, regular staff testing and effective communication to provide advice and support where needed. It was not planned in advance but has turned out to be an invaluable resource.

It is difficult to know what the long-term effects of this pandemic on the business will be. Hopefully a very painful memory, but nothing worse.

The short term effects have been more apparent however. On the negative side fewer products are on the shelves partly through supply issues and partly by not having the person power to fill them up. A decline in sales and customers as mentioned above and a close encounter with EORI are two others. I am sure EORI will reappear, like Banquo’s Ghost, in future articles so I will not dwell on that topic now. Other negatives would include the absence of group thinking and forward planning, and also working from home is not an easy fit for retail.

The fog of dismay and uncertainty has been present too often in recent months. A final negative worth mentioning has been that a tiny minority of customers have shown increased anti-social behaviour in the past few months. Shoplifting, refusal to wear masks and staff harassment have proved an extra burden to deal with at an already difficult time.

The police are sympathetic, but it is not easy to report such low level crimes on a regular basis. We have resorted to banning some of the worst offenders but they generally keep coming back. It is one of the most challenging aspects to deal with when running a shop. The sad thing is that it detracts from the positive effect provided by the vast majority of regular customers who have been so friendly and understanding towards the team during the recent lockdowns and shared the journey.

There have of course been other positives. We have been extremely fortunate to be selling food and providing essential services. We have been totally dependent on the goodwill and support of colleagues who at frequent times have gone above and beyond the call of duty to help us stay open.

The remodelling of the café has not done us any harm and refocussing on deliveries has proved successful. Christmas and special event sales remain positive and the business rates holiday has been a lifeline.

This year, sales have been down overall, but on certain spring-like days the shop has performed well and Pancake Day and Valentine’s Day were real belters. There has been some renewed export activity. So all things considered, and as we head through spring towards summer, and later in the year plan our 50th Christmas of trading, there are reasons to be optimistic. There is life in the Old Partridge yet.

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