2021 looks set to end the same way it started, with much uncertainty about what is to come. Growing fears around the Omicron variant are already showing signs of dampening consumer confidence while looming increases to VAT and labour are weighing heavily on shop owners’ minds. But is it enough to impact trade this Christmas? We spoke to several Ceres customers to find out what their festive plans involved and whether they anticipate a Christmas cracker or a festive flop.
With takeaways generally shielded from the impact of the pandemic many owners are predicting a busy December. Allan Shillingford, of Shillingfords in Neath, for example, isn’t put off by the threat of a lockdown or restrictions, if anything he expects it could aid his already busy delivery and click and collect concept, which has gone from strength to strength since launching after the first lockdown.
After the festive period, however, he’s looking forward to a rest, adding: “We currently open later than we did post-Covid and close earlier. This year we are hopefully closing for at least a week so we’ll close early on Christmas Eve and reopen on New Year’s Eve. We all need a good rest. A nice break and family time will do the world of good and allow us a recharge of the old batteries.”
Krispies in Exmouth is already seeing an increase in office parties and gatherings, which owner Kelly Barnes expects to continue well into this month. With late December normally seeing an increase in larger orders as families gather, Kelly is hoping that with restrictions as they are, sales this Christmas will reflect pre-Covid levels.
Keen to reward her hardworking staff this year, Krispies is taking a different approach to time off this Christmas, with Kelly adding: “We have decided to shut for four days from 25th to 28th to allow our team to spend time with family and friends. However, we have decided for the first time to open on New Year’s Day to trial what trade does.”
Also trialing something new is Rafael Chandler of Croft Street Fisheries in Farsley, Leeds, who plans to open slightly later than normal on Christmas Eve owing to the fact it’s a Friday. He’s also decided to open on Sundays during December in the hope of attracting Christmas shoppers.
Digital sales set to soar
Just like Krispies, The Chesterford Group is already seeing trade build in the usual pre-pandemic way too, leading managing director Paul Goodgame to predict a solid run into Christmas, with delivery and digital sales set to soar as the weather turns.
Paul is throwing everything at handling the increase in digital sales by adding digital capacity, recruiting more delivery drivers as well as putting some time aside to improve the website, both in terms of security for customers and ensuring it’s easy to use and navigate. What’s more, to ensure no sales are lost, the group has also added digital gift cards to the online store.
With the foodservice industry facing continued pressure on prices, Jason Leese, owner of Lakeside Fish & Chips in Poole, Dorset, is much more sceptical that Christmas will bring with it any cheer. He operates a restaurant as well as a takeaway and says cost increases are becoming a major cause for concern. He comments: “We are feeling the pressure with the thought of 8% extra VAT and increases in wages, and that’s without the 70% increase on oil prices.
“The full effect of utilities will, in my opinion, have a massive effect on all hospitality with contracts ending. We have no price cap being a commercial customer.
“It’s going to be a tough four months with not much to look forward to in 2021.”
Danny Koumi, owner of Ridgeway Fish Bar in St Albans, is equally concerned about rising costs, which has meant it’s been difficult to put Christmas deals on this year.
“Our margins have near enough disappeared,” he says. “We’ve never not been busy over the Christmas period and I’d like to think this year would be the same. However, this year has a different feel to it – Covid, Brexit and just a sense of uncertainty about it all.”
Just like Jason, Chris Pithey operates a restaurant as well as a takeaway, Linfords in Market Deeping, Peterborough. He is expecting Christmas to be a little down on a normal year with fewer people out and about shopping on the high street. However, Chris is expecting Christmas Eve to be as busy as usual with it being a Friday and people taking the opportunity to have one last takeaway before the big day.
With a busy Christmas Eve out the way, Chris plans to close for an extra day this year, giving staff from 25th right through to 28th December off.
“My staff didn’t really get a Christmas last year, hopefully they will this year, and for them to be able to relax with their family is important to me,” he says. “And, selfishly, I need some downtime as the year has just been a constant worry and constant change, which leaves people mentally fatigued and everything becomes challenging.”
Some takeaways are already seeing talk of Covid impacting sales. Sarah Lock, owner of five takeaways and restaurants in the southwest of England, says with Covid levels quite high in her areas trade will be steady over the holidays but it won’t be close to the run-up to Christmas they were used to pre-Covid.
Downturn in trade
Wayne Singleton, owner of Harley’s Fish & Chips in Nottingham, is preparing for a downturn in trade towards Christmas this year, having already seen it take a significant hit over the past two weeks. He’s now given up trying to predict any pattern to trade.
“I think the news of inflation, price increases and food shortages has subconsciously made people tighten their belts and that’s having an effect on takeaways,” says Wayne. “We don’t offer delivery, which is certainly a factor, and we’ve still yet to see the “grey” pound return properly too. With Covid again being spoken about a lot in the news I think it will only keep them away even longer.”
Wayne might not benefit from a festive boom, but he still has plenty of Christmas spirit and plans to launch some new menu items, adding: “We’ll push these via social media and hope it drums up some extra interest to draw some more customers out.”
One takeaway that won’t be taking part in any Christmas promotions this year is Towngate Fisheries in Idle, Bradford. Owner Mark Drummond expects trade to follow its normal December pattern in which it starts to pick up week-by-week before it has its busiest week of the year, the week before Christmas.
Mark says: “It’s busy anyway so it’s the time to keep things as simple as possible and not complicate the menu. With commodity prices high, margins are tight so it makes no sense to do offers when we are busy anyway.”
Also busy most Christmases is Packet Bridge Fish & Chips in Bolton-le-Sands, and owner Cem Oktem doesn’t see why this year will be any different. He’s put additional staff on for the two weeks over Christmas, preferring to treat them as dates rather than days.
Cem explains: “We are obviously losing a Friday and a Saturday this year so Wednesday and Thursday will be busier than a normal Wednesday or Thursday. Our opening hours are staying the same. The only change we are making is closing on 2nd January as that’s when we are having our staff do and it makes no sense to reopen on a Sunday.”
Carlo Morretto seems to be in the same camp as Wayne Singleton. At his two takeaways, Seaways Fish Bar in Cheshunt and Stanstead, trade has been unpredictable, which makes planning for anything almost impossible. But he’s hoping for the best, adding: “Trade has been all over the place although it has started to be more consistent in the last two weeks and also busier so I’m hoping it carries on through until Christmas. I will probably wait until early December but I’m thinking I’ll possibly open an hour later to see how it goes. I don’t think any changes will make any big difference if I am honest.”
It seems Carlo and Wayne are not the only two scratching their heads, however. Mike Shaw of Shaws Fish & Chips in Dodworth, Barnsley, is also finding it difficult to predict what might happen this year, saying there are two schools of thought.
“One is that many feel they missed out last year so will be going for it this time. That means more restaurants and bars, less takeaways,” he explains. “The other thought is that many are still a little reluctant to go into crowded areas so they may prefer to stay at home. In short, we have no idea which way it will go! My gut feeling is that we’ll be a bit quieter than usual but it won’t be anything to panic about.”
With reports that hospitality venues are already experiencing cancellations, Jim Cowie, owner of Scrabster Restaurant & Bar in Scrabster, Caithness, remains upbeat as his venue isn’t traditionally associated with large festive bookings.
“This will have zero impact on restaurants like ours, higher-end and smaller, as our festive trade is generally from people trying to get away from the drunken party popper brigade,” he says. “Takeaway trade doesn’t get affected so much with these trends.
“Restaurants that gear up for big office parties will be most affected as Covid is still around and it’s not looking like the big parties will happen.”