Millar's Tale: Lockdown 2.0

Back in May (which feels like two years ago) I took the opportunity to reflect on the positive aspects to be taken from the initial lockdown, highlighting the strengths inherent in more traditional independent retail business models and supply chains.

Then, my hope was that independent retailers would be able to retain their new-found customers through the rest of the year.

That seems to have happened for many, and in a year of punitive grind, that’s a positive point worth focusing on.

Nevertheless, for a lot of independents the months since the first lockdown have been about balancing increased business and the dynamics of everchanging guidance, not to mention the general wellbeing of our teams, while also trying to shore up some of the weaker points that the first lockdown identified in business models. In some cases this might have been a lack

of delivery capacity, a weak online presence or simply not enough staff or stock to cope with the level of orders.

The announcement of a second lockdown that may well drift into mid-December is undoubtedly the worst outcome for everyone in the drinks industry and for our customers. But although there is a sense of déjà vu, some things are different this time around.

The takeaway services provided by many restaurants will undoubtedly be a feature of this Lockdown that wasn’t present to near the same extent  before, allowing customers more occasions to indulge at home. The winter weather will also play a part in increasing drinking at home, as parks and gardens in urban areas will no longer be a hospitable retreat for city-dwellers without gardens as they were in the spring and summer.

On top of that, Christmas itself always introduces an element of unpredictability. I hope I’m not the only buyer to carefully consult last year’s sales figures, note a spike in some venerable fine wine and stock up accordingly, only to find that this Christmas no one cares about that old appellation anymore because they’re all drinking cru Beaujolais.

On top of the usual vagaries of the season, we now have to try to imagine the kind of Christmas our customers might be having, and how we can fit into that.

None of these challenges have been helped by the shambolic state of government communications. Leaving aside policy debates and what you think the correct response to Covid-19 should be, the task of communicating the government’s agreed rules and regulations has been botched repeatedly. Policy U-turns have been almost as plentiful as policies.

With a lack of clarity around the government’s pandemic strategy, it has been impossible for independents to plan in any strategic way. In the end, we have been forced simply to react, which is frustrating given that, by its nature, the sector is proactive. This has not been business as usual.

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