John Shepherd, Partridges: “The highs and lows of speciality food retailing”

03 September 2021, 07:08 AM
  • As the Dog Days of Summer draw to a close, John Shepherd, MD of Partridges, reflects on a difficult trading period – and why he isn't losing hope
John Shepherd, Partridges: “The highs and lows of speciality food retailing”

Room 101, Area 51, Route 66, Chapter 11 and Catch 22 have all gone down in social history as notable expressions and not necessarily with pleasant connotations. In a similar vein I would like to put forward a term with reference to selling speciality foods in Chelsea. Step forward Week 33. Traditionally the worst week of the year in sales at Partridges, based on an experience of many years.

In other words, it’s mid-August. Surprisingly, takings in this period are often lower than anything the darkest days of January and February can throw at us. It is particularly disappointing because theoretically the end of July and the beginning of August should be a high point of the speciality season. Deli products are scoffed, alcoholic beverages are quaffed and generally moods are aloft as the Dog Days of Summer draw to a close.

But here’s the thing (and it’s probably a town centre thing): there is a distinct absence of customers. They have nearly all gone away. Or at least 12-15% of them have. It is a situation worthy of a search party, but even I have gone away so I can’t organise it. In truth, there is not much that can be done. Apart from getting the shop ready for the return of normality in September of course, and sorting out all the problems that get overlooked during busier times.

The sales decline has been particularly bad during the last two years, especially since Covid-19 has entered our lives. Prior to that the departure of regulars to sunnier climes has been somewhat mitigated by the arrival of irregulars such as tourists, event attendees and locals in need of a drink. However, that has mostly withered away in the firm grip of post-lockdown confusion.

This year there has also been a capricious thorn on the rose of summer trading. Those who do not wish to read another (probably exaggerated) weather commentary, please look away now. But this July has been particularly wet. Not just with London drizzle, but rain of nearly biblical proportions. Torrential rain has the same effect on our shop as an electrical blackout without the luxury of being able to do something about it. In July, due to inclement weather we had our worst Monday, Wednesday and Sunday on record, although fortunately in different weeks. Last year was our worst combined July and August on record, and I was reasonably confident we would not plumb to those depths again. Sadly, we are yet again in the same place at the end of July, and Week 33 is still to come just around the corner.

So far it’s all been akin to a painful Summer Punch. However, as with so many aspects of speciality food retailing there are highs and lows. Last year a disappointing summer was followed by a great Christmas and if truth be told, it is not really about the weather but it’s the unpredictability of several situations at the same time. The Pingdemic, the holiday season, the difficulties of recruiting new staff and the unavailability of some products have all assisted the bad weather to make it a frustrating time.

We have of course been here before. The Chelsea Flower Show returns in September, we are upgrading our café and Food Gift area and improving our messaging around the shop. It is important to keep busy, and Week 33 will soon be a distant memory.

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