John Shepherd, Partridges: Why premium products are flying off the shelf

24 June 2021, 07:12 AM
  • Premium wine, organic meat and expensive cheese is selling, notes John Shepherd, MD of Partridges. What does this mean for the wider speciality food industry?
John Shepherd, Partridges: Why premium products are flying off the shelf

DOCG or Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita is the most stringent quality category of Italian wine – as is widely known. There are currently about 70 wines that have achieved this standard and include such illustrious names as Barolo, Amarone della Valpolicella and Prosecco Superiore.

It is these types of wines along with their eminent counterparts from France, Spain, New Zealand and all other quality wine producing countries that have seen a renaissance in sales in Partridges.

During the past year our fine wine sales increased by about 10%. Overall sales in the shop have increased by about 1%. Not only that, but compared to the panic buying first quarter of 2020 and the first quarter of 2021 they are up by considerably more than 10%.

In fact, the contribution the wine department has made overall has grown from 9.7% of the shop’s turnover to 14%. This may be scarcely surprising due to the effects of lockdowns and the closing of pubs and hospitality outlets, and Dry January seemed somewhat beside the point this year.

The biggest increase in sales has been notably among the more expensive wines that we sell. Top sellers currently include Cloudy Bay, La Crema Monterey, Whispering Angel and Planeta Chardonnay.

This increase in wine sales is also played out against the background that our café and wine bar were closed and there has been a complete lack of wine tastings and other promotional activities. It will be interesting to see how long the lockdown effect lasts once, and I am typing this with crossed fingers, lockdowns are a thing of the past.

Average spending per customer in our wine department increased by about 18% alone, and this trend seems to be confirmed by a recently published article reporting that one in five people in the UK were spending £66 more a month on alcohol.

This trend on ‘upspending’ has continued around the shop with organic meats and fresh fish doing well and a resurgence on the deli counter, especially smoked salmon, caviar, bottarga, Prosciutto di Parma and expensive cheese – especially with truffles. In place of the café we have introduced a food gift section which has had a resounding start to its life and has reflected this reorientation in sales with bespoke hampers enjoying their best festive periods on record and with an encouraging season of household gifts to follow.

It is reassuring to note that when times are difficult, expensive speciality foods and quality wines seem to be particularly sought after. Running a business in an affluent area naturally helps, but our delivery reach and online orders have indicated that SW3 is by no means alone in this aspect.

However, while smaller local delicatessen in some cases are experiencing a resurgence of interest, Sainsbury’s announced at the end of last year that they are closing all of their in-store deli counters. This will hopefully bring opportunities, and I have heard of at least four new delicatessen or speciality food shops opening in Central London in the past few months. For this trend to continue there needs to be a real focus on controlling overheads and in particular business rates and rental rates. As I have mentioned in the past, our business rate bill is currently around £1,000 per day. Just four years ago it was 50% less.

Once the pandemic is behind us a new method of calculating business rates and the interaction with rental values must be worked out if food shops are to survive and flourish. The last 18 months have taught us retailers many things, and one of them is understanding the vital role that small food shops can play in local communities.

Nearly 50 years ago one of the most influential books on economics was published by Professor E. F. Shumacher entitled Small is Beautiful. Perhaps the theory is even more relevant today for speciality foods. Small, idiosyncratic, unique, character-driven food shops are beautiful for local communities – long may they survive and flourish.

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