Retailer Columnist: CTRL – ALT – DELETE – Time To Reset

PG columnist and award-winning retailer, David Robertson of JP Pozzi (which comprises four retail sites, a newsagents, card shop, card/gift shop and café mini group, in Scotland’s Buckie and Elgin), shares the approach he is taking during this period of lockdown.

“CTRL, ALT, DELETE – these three keys above are the universal language of reset. The pressing of them on the computer keyboard allows the operating system to start again and move forward with its tasks.

It may mean losing some of the things from your past, but it gives a clean page. In some way I wonder if all this is the world resetting.

As I write this lockdown is three weeks in and the world as we knew it…had become used to …has changed beyond belief.

Above: JP Pozzi has been part of the Buckie community for 30 years.
Above: JP Pozzi has been part of the Buckie community for 30 years.

I am not an expert on COVID-19 and this column is not going to be about the disease and its terrible path of destruction, instead I want to focus on the feelings and stories that these last few weeks have thrown up.

This entire situation, as with all things in life, can be viewed positively or negatively and in truth you probably need a bit of both.

Our business and yours to, if you are an indie card retailer, probably limped along towards Mother’s Day (the Saturday before is normally our busiest day of the year and the week running up to it, one of our strongest). Well, it just about made it, albeit a shadow of its former self.

Above: David Robertson (right) with his 2018 Greats (gift retailer trophy) with fellow Scottish indies, Constance and Hamish Wemyss of The Gift in Beauly and their trophy.
Above: David Robertson (right) with his 2018 Greats (gift retailer trophy) with fellow Scottish indies, Constance and Hamish Wemyss of The Gift in Beauly and their trophy.

I was gutted as we had fantastic selection of products and I believe we would have had an excellent week’s trading, never mind the 246 people we had booked in for Mother’s Day lunch/High Tea into our cafe.

What could we do? Nothing.

How do we feel? Helpless, confused, but ultimately more worried that this disease could affect or infect friends and family. For me my mum is a priority, but there are lots of others in my circle that could face real difficulties if this illness became less of a news topic or statistic and actually became a reality.

The changes to our lives have been immense already. The routine of work, seasons, gift fairs and worrying about the day-to-day running of business, of finding the money to pay everyone, of balancing the stock we buy, dealing with staff problems and a million other things has eased in some ways and amplified in others.

It seems like years ago that we all tripped into Spring Fair nonchalantly picking up the free hand gel (now worth more than gold!) at the entrance to every hall. That was less than eight weeks ago and the topics of discussion then were all about stock being delayed, making sure we took the first chance of orders and worrying about Christmas arriving.

Quite possibly the Chinese will have those Christmas products we ordered on the water in a few weeks’ time as the factories there drift back towards normal service, or at least that’s the official Chinese Government’s line.

Now we are all left looking at all the Spring/Summer stock we placed at Spring Fair. We can’t sell it but have the bills falling due now. 

I have to say that our suppliers on the whole have been excellent, and I am acutely aware that they are businesses too and need to be paid. I have though had a couple of emails from companies effectively demanding payment and sadly a few of them have rushed to discount their spring/summer stock thereby devaluing the goods we bought only a few weeks ago, which I am unhappy about.

However I have also been overwhelmed by the support of many of the card companies, whether it allowing more time to pay or little things like a phone call or sending a card telling mum and I to take care.

I have decided on a strategy which is to borrow everything I need to pay all my suppliers plus around three months of running costs from the government-backed bank loans.

I can then repay this over seven years at a fair rate of interest after the initial free year! Of course I have to actually get this deal over the line and that, as always is the case with all banks, is never simple.

Despite the 80% guarantee from the government and various other conditions you still have to satisfy and tick all the boxes with affordability right at the top of that list.

Last week I spent a long period of time pulling together all the details to justify the amount, the 18 months of cashflows and various other challenges to then be told I need to do a projected P&L as well to tick all the boxes for the loan. 

This is being done by my accountant as it is the only bit I don’t feel confident doing myself but my heart goes out to those thousands of businesses which don’t have the full grasp of all their numbers and perhaps manage their books themselves and have no relationship manager at their bank. To them it will be a phone call to someone who doesn’t know them or their business asking them to make a huge decision.

How some will survive or get the cash they need to filter down the supply chain worries me. Even in my case, we need to be fully trading again by July for my plan to work.

I get the feeling that the card industry will pull together and protect many of its favourite sons and daughters, but questions will undoubtedly be asked about some players, such as Clintons, which seemed to me to be in a precarious position prior to all this. Although who knows, the disruption may actually help them. 

One this is certain, living and trading through this period is certainly going to make people think long and hard about what they are working for. Some may be more resolute than ever that this is their dream and they will be determined to continue. Others may use it as a way of calling time on things, but whatever happens the retail landscape which was under huge pressure before will change even more dramatically.

During the last month there has been a huge shift back to smaller stores – the local butcher, bakers, boxes of fruit and veg deliveries. In my core newsagent shop we have seen over 80 new accounts being set up for home delivery and one can only hope that when this is all over we will not all be dropped and the fantastic lifesaving service we have provided forgotten when the need to stay indoors will have passed.

The role of cards has also come to the fore. We distributed a new leaflet a few weeks ago giving customers different options to pay meaning they do not need to come into the store. On the leaflet we stated that we could deliver other goods too, such as greeting cards.

Above: Part of the leaflet that has helped drum up extra business for JP Pozzi.
Above: Part of the leaflet that has helped drum up extra business for JP Pozzi.

I have been so heartened by the amount of people who have phoned asking me to send out birthday, anniversary and sadly, sympathy cards too. Today there was a request for a belated 100th birthday card – not something you get asked for every day, but a Cinnamon Aitch 100th birthday design from its Picadilly range did the job.

As well as the newspaper deliveries I open our JP Pozzi newsagent shop for three hours a day, which I man on my own. While our card department is technically closed I have lost count of the cards people need. The gift can wait, they say, but they want to send a nice card.

I love this and it’s good to see that cards still matter so much to people and so if I know and trust them I have been letting them through to select a card. I can’t wait to be open and let people see all the new ranges that had literally just arrived.

Sadly, on the odd occasion I have been into Tesco or other supermarkets in the last month I have never seen their card sections emptier; we can’t have this essential product in short supply!  

I do sense people are missing our shops. They are missing the staff and the way we speak to and treat our customers. We, like many other indies, are part of the community.

One lady told me she loves coming into the store because her son doesn’t speak to her anymore while the women in my team are so nice and look after her. It broke my heart hearing this.

Calls from customers wanting to pay their newspaper bill which should only take a couple of minutes are invariably taking a lot longer as a lot of those phoning are on their own and just want the interaction.

I expect many of you fellow retailers reading this will be nodding your heads in agreement, as you care about your customers, your staff and your suppliers in the same way as I do. 

This is what is special about our industry. I really do believe though there will be a backlash against those companies who have acted irresponsibly through all this.

By that I don’t mean those who cannot afford to pay everything to everybody because I am in that boat myself right now, but the Richard Bransons, Tim Martin (Wetherspoons) and Mike Ashley have not, for example, covered themselves in glory.

I know our staff and others have been communicating with one another, supporting each other and I am really doing my best to stand by them. As many of you know I also do consultancy work for Cardzone and this company has been exemplary. I won’t go into details but suffice to say I am proud to be associated with a company that does the right thing. Many wouldn’t.

In many respects I am back doing what my dad did. I’m in the shop very early in the morning to sort all the newspaper boys. I man the counter on my own and basically juggle all the balls in the air. It is quite refreshing if tiring and I have spent more time behind the counter these last four weeks than in the last four years.

Above: Where David spends his very early mornings, readying for the newsrounds.
Above: Where David spends his very early mornings, readying for the newsrounds.

Running multi sites and a large staff is great, but it does mean you drift from the coalface a little and I have to say it has been good to rebuild the close (2m apart!) interaction with customers.

In some ways I believe when we do re-open we there will be a rush, not as much as the hairdressers mind you but I do think people will want to get over their cabin fever. How long this will last I am less sure, plus how much money will people have to spend is another serious question.

We are all in this together. Whether you have a large bank balance or not. Whether you have one or a hundred stores, we all have the same doubts and worries about when and if we can start trading again and when and if the customers will return to normal.

What Covid-19 Has Taught Me…

Here are some random thoughts and things I have noticed over the last month – I am sure you can add your own to this list as it is by no means exhaustive.

·  I am definitely willing to trade some freedom for the greater cause.

·  You should wash your hands regardless – I did this before but do it even more!

·  Working from home is far more feasible than you would think! There is no need to fly all over the country when you have Zoom!

·  Taking a sick day if unwell is not the wrong thing to do, it is the responsible thing to do.

·  Internet – is essential and needs to be better for all – where would we have been without it?

·  Appreciate the outdoors and your time in it – walking has never felt so good!

·  “Contentment is great gain” as my granny would say and enjoying your house and the time in it is important.

·  Doctors/health care and so many other sectors need to be better paid.

·  ‘Low skill’ what does that really mean? There is no such thing as low skilled as everyone’s role in fighting this has shown that the cleaner is as valuable as the surgeon.

·  What I perhaps valued perhaps doesn’t really matter as much.

·  It is good to talk – check on people you love each day.

·  Human spirit always prevails.

Above: Have van, will deliver!
Above: Have van, will deliver!

Two PG columns ago the mantra was to ‘Bee Kind’, now it is ‘Be Safe’ but in some ways it is simply to be the best you can be. No-one can ask any more of you than that whether it is in business or indeed life.

Top: David Robertson, md of JP Pozzi.

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