Now it’s crunch time

It’s been an interesting few weeks, not least because I decided to duck out on December 23 last year and let the other chaps take the strain of Christmas Eve. Hey, I’ve done it for the past nine years, and we had as many deliveries as we could muster in the preceding few days, so it was just a case of putting stock out and taking payment. I say “just” with my tongue firmly in my cheek, of course, as this is a mammoth task at this time of year, but still, it was over to our very own Glimmer Twins to man the barricades on the 24th.

Now, with the faff of resetting the VAT rate and repricing the stock almost behind us, it’s only natural to wonder what the year ahead holds.

Significantly, with the high-street presence of specialist drinks retail down to one national chain and a smattering of stalwart and opportunist independents, now, more than ever, is crunch time for drinks retailing. Is the recession really behind us? Will the move from on-trade to off? continue if it is? My personal feeling is that there is potential for a “double?-dip” recession, with problems carrying on well into 2010.

Anecdotally, I know more people who have struggled towards the end of last year than at the start – Christmas will have come as a salve for them, but the long freeze-out of January will bring some uncomfortable decisions for many. The people who will prosper, and it’s something that I’ve gone on about for years, will be the ones who seek to add value rather than cut costs. The supermarkets will take a larger slice of the pile-it-high-and-sell-it-cheap pie, and anyone seeking to beat them at their own game will lose out.

The big news for 2010 will be the direction the government takes with alcohol. There is a definite sense of neo-prohibitionism at the moment, and it is difficult to tell which way this will send policy. It seems unlikely the current government will do anything too rash in an election year? but, equally, it’s hard to tell what will happen after the election.

Certainly a Tory victory will see some sort of lip-service paid to the perceived problem of “?binge Britain”. But a Labour victory means they have the luxury of four more years – and may act in the short term (perhaps introducing minimum pricing, or cracking down on public disorder), with a view to recanting a few years later if their actions are seen to be ineffective.

And what of the anti-alcohol lobby? The retirement of Sir Liam Donaldson is neither here nor there – he was just a mouthpiece for a particular objective the government has set out to achieve.

It seems inconceivable to me that, over the next 12 months, there won’t be some drastic shake-up in the way alcohol is sold. Perhaps surprisingly, I believe the supermarkets will suffer most, and about time too – the discounts available this year have been no less than in previous years. And if you want to call me self-serving on that subject, you’re damn right. The only small victory we had at Christmas was an increase in the number of people buying their wines from us, tired of the supermarkets’ bewildering array of identikit wines. As a beer specialist, that came as a surprise, but you have to take your victories where you can.