Riding the storm in 2007

12 January, 2007

Although we are hitting the bleak midwinter, with customers so infrequent that I can recall exactly what we sold this afternoon, it would be remiss not to have a quick Christmas round-up. For us, it was a scenario that we've become accustomed to, although much more exaggerated this year. Every year I get caught out loading up on commodity beers and wines, and every year these stay put, unnoticed in the rush for speciality bottled beers. So, three days before Christmas, and we've still got a pallet of cans of beer in the cellar, but some of the bottles are starting to look patchy. The phrase "double face around it" is repeated until it is ragged.

First, the facts: the week was unusual, with a full trading week before Christmas, falling on a Monday for the first time in my tenure as a retailer. Although we've had an indifferent year, it was our busiest seven-day period ever. In fact, we set consecutive day records for takings on the Friday and Saturday before Christmas Eve (which thankfully, was a bit quieter, as we would have had to quintuple-face beers two rows deep to retain an impression of full shelves, looking like a beer-centric version of Unwins just before its collapse). Without flashing blingy figures about, the Friday exceeded our previous day record by 15 per cent, and the Saturday exceeded this by 15 per cent again.

On Christmas Eve, the weekly Z-read showed a figure that was about triple what we'd taken on an average week this year. Out of curiosity, I pick up the phone and call a few old alumni ...

Paul Henderson is an ex-employee of ours, who went his own way and opened Wharfed'Ales in the beer-mad town of Otley - a smart move, whichever way you measure it. Despite the proximity of a Booths supermarket, and their notoriously (some might say foolishly) low-priced bottled beer, he's had a good year, but he too was caught on the hop: "We saw it hotting up on Friday and managed to get a few calls in to some of the more local brewers, and got some late deliveries," he explained.

This was a problem for some: traditionally the last Friday before Christmas tends to be a half day and so laying adequate supplies at such a busy time was hard work. But Paul has found that being a beer specialist is paying off - he's slightly taken aback by how good a Christmas he had, up 400 per cent on a normal week.

We have a connection to John Wilson too - he used to be my boss, before moving upwards and onwards to open DrinksWell in Ripon. While being very much in the specialist beer camp, he carries a huge range of spirits and liqueurs as well, creating a niche for himself as a drinks shop that has everything. This was his third Christmas trading, and has found the last 30 months to be a process of refining and specialising.

"People go to the supermarkets for cheap deals and tinnies, so I've concentrated on being everything that they're not ," he says.

Despite having one of the Big Four just across the marketplace, he's seen a 300 per cent seasonal boom.

Other than the necessity of odd wordplay for your business name, what does this tell us? Despite the usual predictions of a poor Christmas, there is still good business being done. The year ahead looks like it is going to be tough, but those who have carved out a niche for themselves will do well to hang in there.




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