John Shepherd: Beware the ides of February

21 March 2022, 16:45 PM
  • As winter draws to a close, John Shepherd, managing director of Partridges, offers fellow retailers a taste of what's to come
John Shepherd: Beware the ides of February

In the rough and tumble of speciality food retailing the first casualties are generally expectations. And especially Great Expectations. Whatever you think will happen, particularly the good things, never quite turns out to be the case. Take February 2022 for example.

The preceding month of January was reasonably good. Sales were up by 8.8% although that was in comparison to a lockdown, or was it a tier time of the previous year? It was when customers had to book tables to consume alcohol and our wine and spirit sales benefitted significantly. January followed our second-best Christmas on record. Although how we managed that feat with all the stock shortages, Covid absences and Brexit obstacles I do not know. We staggered over the finishing line.

With this background our expectations for February were reasonably positive. There was the end of restrictions in sight, Valentine’s Day is always a positive, and the first week of the month maintained the feel-good vibes by being 8% up on the previous year. What could possibly go wrong?

Week 2 for a start. Down 4%. Then week 3 down 10.2%, and as I started to write this article in the middle, or ides, of the month we were 6.5% down. Valentine’s Day being on a Monday is never as good as Valentine’s being at the end of the week. Messrs Dudley, Eunice and Franklin of the Storm variety were real party poopers. They disrupted customers visiting the shop and restricted our own deliveries. It was also the first half term for a long time when families could actually travel abroad without running the gauntlet of extensive restrictions. Frustrating stock shortages, rising prices and the threat of conflict in Europe did not help either. Heading towards Pancake Day on March 1st the mood had been as flat as a er….pancake.

But then guess what? Expectations were confounded again. A three days of good weather on the last weekend, including the best Saturday we have ever had for a February, has revived the January optimism. We may still be down for the month but at least what appeared to be a rout looks more like a sprout. Which is entirely appropriate for spring.

Our outlook for the rest of the year, although uncertain, remains positive. In March sales do pick up compared to the first two months of the year. A late Easter will lead to a Bank Holiday at the beginning of May and then there is the Platinum Jubilee weekend, when we are hoping to hold a large street party on the King’s Road. If the weather is benign we tend to benefit from these national celebrations enormously. Our café and wine bar has become an increasingly important part of our speciality food offer.

There are times when running your own business is like being on a seesaw with your grandchildren. There are uncomfortable bumps and frustrating slumps, but for me there is always an overwhelming desire to get back on the seesaw to enjoy it all over again.

It’s those Great Expectations again.

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