John Shepherd, Partridges: “How’s it all going?”

18 November 2021, 07:43 AM
  • John Shepherd, MD of Partridges, gives Speciality Food his answer to one of the most difficult questions in food retailing
John Shepherd, Partridges: “How’s it all going?”

One of the most difficult questions to answer as a food retailer, even after 50 Christmases of trading is, “How is it all going?” The commercial equivalent to “How are you?”

So often the answer becomes “not too bad, thanks”. Although in reality this is a travesty of a response. One is more inclined to say in the present day, “Which crisis are you referring to?” Because although hardly anybody wants to hear a recital of medical ailments when enquiring about personal circumstances, the same does not apply to commercial matters.

As this question will continually get asked it is quite important to get the message right when replying. It also depends of course who is asking the question. If it is a fellow speciality food colleague, a mere glimpse of body language conveys a detailed picture and often elicits reciprocal feelings. If it is a landlord, property person, customer, journalist or competitor, the answer becomes more complicated. Unless things are really desperate, a message needs to be conveyed acknowledging the existence of profound challenges but at the same time that the difficulties are not necessarily mortal ones.

Like many a political speech, a lot of words can mean very little. To appear too much like a Victor Meldrew is a long-term vocation yet to rejoice publicly is a short-term seasonal job. There is probably not a ‘best way’ to respond.

This applies more than ever now. A shortage of basic food products, a shortage of staff and a shortage of fuel are creating uncertainty for Christmas. While National Insurance increases, business rate revaluations and rising prices all cause anxiety for next year.

It is important not to forget that economic crises have become very much a part of the fabric of commercial life. Like difficult people, inclement weather or a local outbreak of a multiple supermarket.

As a matter of fact, Wikipedia actually lists UK economic crises by the century. Starting off with the Great Slump of 1430. Thank goodness we missed that one – it lasted 60 years. More relevant to Partridges, which we opened in 1972, are the crises that occurred in the late 20th century.

There was one in every decade followed by the Great Recession of 2008. Shortly after we first opened in 1972, we had the energy crisis and the secondary banking crisis of 1973-1975, with a sharp drop in UK property prices. This period has been referred to as ‘the collapse of the Post War Golden Age’. In 1974 there was the Three Day Week and we resorted to selling candles when the electricity was shut off in the evenings. Black Wednesday occurred in 1992 and the 2007- 2009 financial crisis is still fresh in the memory. Covid-19 and its effects may yet prove to be the worst of them all.

Nevertheless, we have got through all of these, however badly shaken at times. So lucky in many ways to be food retailers and lucky to enjoy the benefits in the good times. And we have another good time coming up. Fingers crossed.

As I said earlier, this year is our 50th Christmas and Christmas is usually a bumper time. Despite short-term constraints and disappointments, as a small business over the years, we have had good support from suppliers, customers and colleagues in the trade. The fine food offer has been an enduring success through both good times and bad. Its evolution from the 1970s to the present day has been remarkable, with tremendous creativity and innovation at the forefront – as one can see through the pages of this magazine.

Perhaps the ‘best way’ to respond to the question “How Is it Going?”, especially during the fourth quarter, is by replying in the sincerest way: “Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year”. At the very least this simple phrase has been integral to so much of what we all do in the speciality food world. And for us at Partridges for half a century. So once again, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all – times 50.

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