Why retail’s “fallow time” isn’t all bad news

16 March 2021, 10:53 AM
  • In farming, fallow time allows soil quality to regenerate and growing opportunities to increase. In his latest column, John Shepherd, MD of Partridges, explains why he’s staying hopeful despite a sales slump
Why retail’s “fallow time” isn’t all bad news

Last year’s August could well have been the worst month we have ever experienced in terms of sales. A whopping 12% down in turnover and nearly 12% down in customers compared to the previous year.

We were naively hoping that the worst of Covid-19 was then behind us and things would pick up over the next few months. And as a matter of fact, they did, and by Christmas we were looking towards 2021 with a small degree of optimism.

However, to use technical language, January was like a slap in the face with a wet haddock in the rain. The first week was alright, in fact slightly up on last year, but weeks two and three took a nosedive, and as I write this on the 22nd of the month we are currently 11% down on last year and just 5% up on last August, which, as mentioned earlier, was the worst month we have ever had.

The reasons for our current travails are manifold, of course – Lockdown 3, the weather, low stock levels after Christmas, depleted staff numbers and no passing trade at all.

We have even taken the decision to close the shop early for this month to assist with timetabling problems. We have also temporarily suspended the Fine Food Market and three staff members have been put on furlough.

As in farming, fallow time is not unknown in business, particularly speciality food, and especially in January. And in some ways a slump or periods of very slow Slow Food may actually serve to reinvigorate in the longer term. What we are actually experiencing of course is not a total shutdown but a severe retraction in activities.

During these bleak times it is important to keep a sense of perspective and not to panic. For me this tends to involve consulting the records to see if similar experiences in the past were ever as bad as now.

For us, fallow time removes the excuse to avoid confronting some annoying strategic challenges that we have put on hold for a very long time. Our main foe in this respect has been the proposed relocation of the bakery counter to the front of the shop. It may sound simple enough, but a lot of work and planning and reorganisation is required, especially when staff resources are so stretched.

However, the lure of filo pastries and the scent of warm bread on entering the shop has always been a winner for us in previous shop layouts, and now ‘cometh the hour.’ When days are worryingly quiet and ‘customer lite’ I often recall the 1986 single by Gwen Guthrie with the amusing title of Ain’t Nothing Going On But The Rent. It certainly seems that way in our part of Central London. However, the purpose of fallow time is that the soil quality and growing opportunities eventually increase. Examining our previous sales history over several decades, a fallow period for us at the start of the year has not diminished a higher yield by the end of it. And that’s exactly what I am telling the accountants.

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