John Shepherd, Partridges: “The Shopping Forecast”

03 August 2021, 07:05 AM
  • John Shepherd, MD of Partridges, on why the speciality food sector is "seriously underestimated"
John Shepherd, Partridges: “The Shopping Forecast”

The Shipping Forecast is, of course a beloved British institution. Every day it commands audiences of hundreds of thousands of listeners, many of whom believe it helps them to nod off last thing at night. If the Shipping Forecast was adapted to reveal the outlook for present day shopping conditions in the UK it would not make very pleasant reading. Probably something along the lines of “outlook dull, fog patches, occasional drizzle and Rockall happening”.

And this has nothing to do with the weather. It has more to do with the continuation of government restrictions and social distancing guidelines which are frustrating our efforts to get back to normality. The last two weeks of June alone were down about 15% on last year. Operations are still cramped by Covid-19 restrictions and lacking the external stimuli that summer presents to food and drink businesses. There have been fewer concerts and events, no Chelsea Flower Show, reduced outside gatherings, less tourism, fewer staff applications and with my old nemesis ‘disappointing weather’ adding to the mix the present scene is muted to say the least.

Every month this year I have been involved in conversations along the lines of, “just wait until April… May… June…” and then last week, “things should be okay by September”. It is entirely right that restrictions remain in place until the pandemic is defeated, but it is hard not to feel crisis fatigue when bright new dawns dissolve into wet evenings. During our 49 years of trading, Covid-19 has been one of the biggest challenges. It is by no means the only crisis we have faced over the past nearly 50 years.

A roll call of crises we have known would include power cuts, the Hurricane of 1987, several terrorist incidents, a number of wet summers, unhelpful governments, congestion charging, parking restrictions, the Millennium Bug, a Pension Fund deficit, the extension of Sunday Trading Hours in 1994, relentless shoplifting, the stock market crisis of 2002, the Bull Market of the late 90s, the 2006 financial downturn, the collapse of Northern Rock, the rise of online shopping and the growth in convenience foods. Most of which resulted in dire warnings that it was the end of delicatessen as we know them and probably traditional family businesses, too.

The biggest threat we had happened around 2002, shortly after Waitrose opened in Halkin Street (about half a mile away), and our location for selling speciality foods suddenly became off piste, so to speak. It took about three years for us to recover and involved a move several hundred yards to the south and entry into a new retail bubble. It will happen again one day I am sure, but for the time being we are enjoying our 49th year despite the infuriating persistence of the lockdown. Fewer than 1% of firms make it to 100 years, and I am not sure how many make it to 50 years. But delicatessen and the speciality food sector may have been seriously underestimated.

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