It was always on course to be a Christmas like no other, but the Tier 4 restrictions, fear caused by the mutating virus keeping people away from shops as well as last minute supply issues have meant that many card retailers’ tills are not jingling as much as had been hoped, but most are giving it a damn good go right until the final hour.
“Broken” is the word Heidi Early, co-owner of Earlybird in Stoke Newington, North London says it how she felt when she heard the Tier 4 news. “I actually gasped when Boris said we had to close on Saturday night and then promptly burst into tears. There’s only so much we can take. It’s taken such a huge effort to stay positive and upbeat this year, it’s exhausting. So, we went out on social media and urged people to come shopping for the last few hours. And people did come out which was utterly amazing. The words of support and encouragement have been humbling.”
The independent retailer, like others is now offering Click & Collect but Heidi says the money you take from this is minimal compared to being open as you miss out from impulse purchasing.
“We will get our spirit back and be even stronger next year I’m sure, but right now gin is the only spirit I’ve got!” admits Heidi.
Meanwhile in the south of the capital, Mark Janson-Smith, managing director of the London-based Postmark group shared how he feels “gutted” at being forced to close. “We were actually heading for a record December, and had just secured a whole lot of additional stock and then Tier 4 restrictions came into force. We don’t want to let our customers so we are driving round making as many home deliveries as we can, trying not to think about the uncertainty of what will happen in the new year.”
The Tier 4 restrictions have seen 20 of Scribbler’s 37 shops being forced to close at only a few hours’ notice. “It was the lack of warning which really hit us. We had made massive deliveries into stores in readiness for the final push,” said John Procter, co-founder of Scribbler. “Christmas trade had not been great – our London stores were down 50%-70% and out of London ones were down 20%-40% so we really wanted those final five days trade, but bang, it was gone.”
While Cardzone’s store spread has seen only 32 of its 160 stores being forced to close (less than 20%) as a result of Tier 4 restrictions, Paul Taylor, managing director said that “the public’s understandable worry over the spread of the virus means footfall generally is down, but we are here for every last sale”. Taking a philosophical approach, Paul added: “Yes, this has had a dampening effect on the final Christmas push for retail sales, but we are a lot better off than say the entertainment and hospitality sectors. Our real hope is that the vaccine rollout is quick and effective, for all our sakes.”
Lessons learned and investments made during previous lockdowns are proving a lifeline for many retailers in Tier 4. As Adam de Wolff, co-owner of The Indigo Tree in Streatham and Crystal Palace said: “Thank God we updated our website during the first lockdown. Obviously, it doesn’t make up for significant lost shop sales, but thankfully we don’t have much Christmas stock to store for next year! Customers have been shopping locally and we have been so incredibly grateful for their fantastic support”
Jo Barber, owner of No. 14 Ampthill, Bedfordshire feels the same: “We’ve sold more Christmas cards this year than ever, despite being closed in November. On the Sunday, our first day closed after the Tier 4 restrictions, we sold over 300 Christmas cards from our website!”
While her two shops are able to trade, and she is almost sold out of all her Christmas cards, Sarah Green, co-owner of High Tide in Southwold and Wave in Bungay says that the latest travel restrictions means that she is not seeing the usual burst of last minute sales in her two shops in coastal Suffolk.
“Trade since the second lockdown was actually better than expected with many people avoiding the big cities which helped us – particularly in our Bungay branch. There ends the good news! Although we are in Tier 2 Boris’ announcement on Saturday has flattened trade dramatically. In Southwold this should be a peak week for us as visitors arrive for Christmas holidays with family and friends as well as the second home owners arriving. Clearly that hasn’t happen and trade has literally dived. We have to try and hang on to the fact that we had a bumper summer and once the vaccine kicks in we expect staycations will be a feature of 2021. We do realise however that we are in a much better place than most independent retailers.”
Meanwhile further north, Penny Bailey, co-owner of Baileys (in Ainsdale, Crosby and Maghull) is “ready for anything” which the final push will bring. “What a rollercoaster… We would normally be bracing ourselves for a crazy last week but the last three weeks have felt like Christmas week so who knows what these last few days will bring. The thought of something chilled and fizzy on Christmas Eve is keeping us all going!
Since reopening in November, Penny feels “very lucky that trade has exceeded expectations. I do really feel for all the businesses that are struggling and regularly count our blessings. It is heart-breaking too for our suppliers that have stock sat in the ports and not on our shelves.”
Over in Garstang, Marion and Mark Flaherty, co-owners of Best Wishes are still very much “going for it!”. Not leaving the shop until after 10pm every evening in order, four visits to the wholesalers in quick succession for top up stock, they are on course to almost make up for the sales lost through the November lockdown.
“Customers have been coming in with chocolates, cake and bottles of wine to keep us going, which has been lovely,” says Marion.
Jerry and Debbie Brown, co-owners of First Class Greetings, Hadleigh reports an equally positive picture.
“Christmas trading has been good for us, and we anticipate that we will be around 5% up on last year for December and around 10% up in November when we were still open because of having a Post Office in store. We can’t say it hasn’t been challenging, but compared to some we consider ourselves very lucky.”
Meanwhile at Sainsbury’s, demand is definitely outstripping supply with the Tier 4 restrictions as well as the clamour to stock up on Christmas provisions resulting in card racks being ransacked without sufficient time to get more stock in.
“Still with three full trading days to go, 80% of our Christmas cards has been sold. Our grandson/granddaughter cards have had a 94% sell through, ‘to you both’ designs have had a 90% sell through, ‘to my wife’ cards were 64% sold out, with a lot of the remaining stock in our convenience stores, not the main supermarkets. We did manage to secure 120,000 units at the last minute, but it is no way enough,” admitted Carly Pearson, senior buyer of Sainsbury’s.
Sarah Moughton, partner and junior buyer of JohnLewis andWaitrose has also seen encouraging Christmas card sales. “Despite everything the pandemic has thrown us this year we have been having a really strong Christmas across both JL and Waitrose with sales coming through right to the last minute. With the finish line in sight, you can’t help but feel the blow of Tier 4 regulations but I hope that we can celebrate the successes we have seen throughout the season and look forward to 2021! Thank you to all publishers involved, I hope that everyone manages to have a well-deserved rest and stays safe over Christmas,” she said, ending on message echoed by PG Buzz to all readers.
Top: Nutcracker Christmas decorations that The Indigo Tree promoted on its social media channels.