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I know by the time you read this it will be 2022. However, before we face up to the realities of the New Year, I would like to reflect on an element of 2021.
In particular, Thanksgiving. This delightful British export* to America has for about 40 years enlivened sales in the month of November. *(Courtesy of the Pilgrim Fathers – tongue in the vicinity of cheek).
A lot of what we experienced will be important training for the New Year.
We originally stumbled on this great Other Side Of The Pond tradition because a number of expats in Chelsea kept trying to buy turkeys in November. Eventually the penny dropped and our range evolved into selling a number of beloved American products to accompany the precious bird.
In this mission we have been greatly assisted over the years by Damian Curzon Price and his team at Americatessen who saw the gap in the market and developed it along with other wholesalers who later followed suit. I am pleased to report we even launched a Ben & Jerry product at one stage, but that is another story. The net result with Thanksgiving is that November is by far and away our second busiest month of the year, helped by the Halloween afterglow at the beginning and the Black Friday scramble at the end. Throw in a local Christmas lights switch on for good measure and it is the perfect cocktail for stressed-out speciality food retailers.
Yet, of course, 2021 has been a lot more exacting than previous years. It is true to say that import difficulties have arisen before. Storms, bad weather and shipping diversions have disrupted supplies from North America in the past, and ice in the Hudson Bay seemed a perennial problem for Campbell’s soups arriving in the UK.
But this year Brexit, haulage issues and red tape have slowed goods across Europe. For example, Pepperidge Farm Stuffing, a firm favourite, languished in Rotterdam for four weeks while awaiting containers of other goods to board. There was also a poorer pumpkin crop and similar supply issues in the US, apparently. There were other factors at play as well. On the aggravating side of the spectrum were a projected turkey shortage, bad weather in Thanksgiving week, a tube strike and the travel corridor reopening between the UK and the US which probably lured potential customers away.
On the mitigating side there had been good weather until the last week of November, we were able to swap ‘fungible foods’ on a like for like basis, American customers are very good at improvising in order to maintain the spirit of Thanksgiving and finally, a number of our lines also sell well in the run-up to Christmas, so there will be little wastage on the stocks we have held.
For the final trading result of Thanksgiving 2021, sales ended up about 2.4% down on 2020 and 3.5% up on 2019. I feared it was going to be a lot worse than this.
However, we expect the November trading micro climate to continue into the New Year. Covid-19 variant dodging, price increases, supply problems and staff recruitment headaches are all likely to be aggravating prospects.
But as in November there will be mitigating factors. Spring and the sap rising, vaccination rates increasing, Platinum Jubilee street parties developing and hopefully a realisation that, all going well, we have survived the worst retail recession since World War II. So it is probably a good time to give thanks to Thanksgiving and the great American customers it brings with it, and the fact that the concept of speciality foods has yet again proved resilient throughout a singularly challenging period.
Hello 2022 – bring it on!