15 May 2020, 08:08 AM
  • The present situation we are facing, without doubt, is beyond comparison in the 50 years history of our business
John Shepherd, Partridges: “Whenever normal returns, it will be wonderful”

Daniel Defoe wrote about the Great Plague of 1665 and its effect on London life in his book Journal of a Plague Year. Despite the 355 year age gap the themes and experiences he depicts are hauntingly familiar for the reader of today. For example, the devastating effect on trade, the hope the epidemic would quickly pass, the belief that it would fade in the summer, social distancing policies and the presence of fear and panic everywhere. However, it is reassuring to note that suddenly and unexpectedly “the poison was taken out of the sting” and somewhat miraculously things got better. In the words of Defoe, “it was wonderful”.

For us at Partridges the Coronavirus period started on Friday 6th March. It was the first day of panic buying with sales up 26% on the previous year and customer numbers up 16%. This trend continued over the weekend of 7th and 8th and over the following two weeks, eventually slowing down on 22nd March. It was during the latter week that we recorded our highest sales ever, over 73% above the same week in 2019 - outstripping Christmas week – although customers were now down by 28%, but average spending rose over the month by 40%.

Basically, every item we had on the shelves sold, with the emphasis on pasta, rice, eggs, flour, sauces, bread, biscuits, chocolate, water, wines, fruit and veg and delicatessen items. A lot of American products and foods from around the world sold online. However, shelves were becoming empty and staff were significantly reduced as government guidelines directed. It was like a commercial earthquake had shaken the shop with lots of aftershocks following on. The only other shop that remained open close by was Boots.

By week commencing Monday 23rd March we had closed the café and the patisserie counter (cakes being an area where sales declined) and consolidated the deli. We suspended online orders and stopped local deliveries. On one day alone more than 10 members of staff were absent and it became imperative to record the reasons – self isolating, shielding or, for various reasons, choosing not to attend. It was a week of chaos and even some suppliers requested payment upfront before delivering. There was the added pressure of enforcing the two metre rule, limiting customer numbers, reducing trading hours, answering the ever-ringing phones, encouraging card payments only and getting the staff to wear face masks and gloves. A lot of the above being completely counterintuitive, of course, to retailers of a certain age.

By the week commencing March 30th and finishing April 5th, we had reached a degree of stability. There was a reduction in sales of about 10% from last year, but some staff were returning and supplies were increasing. We resumed online deliveries (with over 100 orders on one day) but with the caveat of delay, and we restarted deliveries, albeit doorstep only.

As the statistics get grimmer it is sometimes a challenge to maintain morale. But there are positives. The staff have been brilliant and the bond with customers has been strengthened. Many have expressed gratitude to us for remaining open. We are still trading unlike other retailers, the business rates abolishment for one year has been a lifeline and we will of course get through this.

My main longing is for things to return to normal – the very same normal I used to complain about in these articles, although in some ways it may never be the same again. But whenever normal returns, in the words of Daniel Defoe, “it will be wonderful.”