Industry faces Project Reality - Jason Millar

Illustration of a man in a bell jar

Christmas might be full of surprises, but for an independent wine merchant, surprises are the last thing you want in the run up to December 25.

Most indies approach Christmas with a military demeanour that is at odds with the spirit of the season. From marshalling our staff and suppliers to planning offers and merchandise months in advance, it is not a season for dreamy relaxation, but a multi-month marathon that requires everything to fall into place at the right time, which it rarely does.

That hope has never been more unrealistic than this year, with the twin strains of Brexit and Covid making life difficult at every point for an independent store. Where last Christmas was driven by the combination of a last-minute lockdown and looming panic about Brexit, Christmas 2021 will demonstrate the long tail of Covid and the punishing realities of strained logistics systems around the world.

Over the past 12 months, retailers have taken on much larger stock holdings across the board, partly to service increased customer demand, but often just to be able to have a plan B – or C or D – when the supply chain elsewhere fails.

Larger stockholdings don’t just apply to those who import directly either. With shortfalls increasingly common even among the large, well-organised and well-staffed UK suppliers, many independents are choosing to go large on key lines, rather than risk running out of staples such as New Zealand Sauvignon or classic French and Italian reds for the Christmas table.

Those who stocked up pre-Brexit were inured to some of this pain for the first few months of the year, but the real trouble has become increasingly clear as those stocks have run out and not been replaced on time by new shipments.

The scale of the issue is clear. Even those with significant buying power are showing the strain, with my local supermarket shelves displaying yawning gaps where there should be wines, with even indispensable buyer-own-brand wines missing from shelves.

Even at the best of times, delivery times, supply chains and bonded warehouses struggle to stay on top of orders towards the end of the year. The big UK trade suppliers are now warning that deliveries will take at least an extra day compared to earlier in the year, and with Ocado and M&S able to offer £2,000 signing bonuses to new drivers, indies can only expect the impact of the driver shortage to get worse.

Unpredictability is a hazard for any business and its cash flow, but the level of uncertainty we are currently dealing with means that it is almost impossible to plan effectively.

Add to that the threat of new restrictions, and it really does seem like Christmas 2021 has been hijacked by Jack Skellington from The Nightmare Before Christmas. This year, the Christmas message to customers is clear: buy early, buy plenty, and don’t be surprised if your local indie doesn’t have your favourite wine in stock a few days before the big one.

Is this all a bit pessimistic? Perhaps. But maybe it’s time to call a spade a spade after years of swallowing delusional optimism. If there were easy, straightforward answers, we would have found them by now, but much of this is beyond our control.

Let’s repurpose the Brexit phrase Project Fear and simply call it Project Reality. When the facts are confronting us all on a daily basis, blithe positivity is an outlook few businesses can afford.

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