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How businesses are coping ahead of this year’s unpredictable Christmas season


Supply chain shortages and rumours of lockdowns have left businesses worried (Picture: Getty Images)

After Christmas was all but cancelled last year, the UK’s small and large businesses are preparing nervously for an unpredictable festive season.

Between supply chain shortages, rumours of a ‘Plan C’ lockdown and fragility due to over a year of Covid restrictions, many are worried about what might happen next and whether they will survive.

Christmas sales account for over a quarter (28%) of small business earnings on average, meaning that trading in December is crucial.

Last year, a study by business insurer Simply Business showed that the average small business expected to be well over £2,000 poorer than usual at the end of the 2020 Christmas period due to lockdowns, with 10% of businesses expecting to take between £3,000 and £5,000 less than usual.

This year’s Christmas sales will be crucial, entrepreneurs say.

‘Footfall has been poor this year and so I’m hoping for a bumper Christmas to help make up some of the shortfall although I can’t totally pull it back round now,’ says Sarah Laker, who runs Stationery Supplies Marple and Stationery Supplies Wilmslow, in Cheshire. She says: ‘I have a £35,000 bounceback loan and I’m down £30,000 year on year.’

Even businesses that trade online are concerned that lack of stock, due to Brexit and HGV driver shortages, will affect their ability to trade in the crucial Christmas period.

Rob Weatherhead, who runs online business Affordable Wine, says that suppliers are facing serious challenges.

‘Whether it is down to demand, poor wine crops, glass shortages or uncertainty on the customs conditions, we are being quoted 30% increase in some costs with no guarantee on timescales to get the wine,’ he says.

‘We have taken the decision to stock up where possible in the belief there will be shortages at Christmas, but some of our best-selling wines will be out of stock, that’s for sure.’

With all of the uncertainty ahead, here is how some of the UK’s businesses are preparing for a festive season with so much riding on it.

The entertainment venue: ‘The office Christmas party is back’

Dean Mac, owner and founder of One Eight Six, a late night cocktail bar and live music entertainment venue in Manchester city centre.

Dean isn’t planning for another lockdown (Picture: Dean Mac)

‘We lost probably half a million quid over in lockdown,’ he says. ‘It was very difficult for us but we came out the other side and we’ve had an influx of bookings and an influx of interest, which is fantastic.’

Dean is about to open a second space next door to his bar, so he can pull in twice as many customers.

‘That means that we get more and more people in the venue for Christmas, which should be fun. We’re going to dress the venue and a lot of people are looking at Christmas parties and birthdays around Christmas. We’ve got a massive influx of larger bookings, a massive influx of people to come down with all of their staff, whether it’s ten people in management or whether it’s a whole company of employees.’

Dean is continuing with Christmas bookings without making Covid contingency plans.

‘We are just cracking on booking everyone in and actually trying to move forward. We’ll deal with Covid when and if we have to. We are plodding along and powering forward.

‘We’ve still kept to our social distancing rules, because actually, it gives you a better experience. You know, you book a table and you get your own waitress the whole evening. And if you do want to dance around your own table, you’ve got your own space.

‘So actually, if we do bring back vaccine cards, and that sort of thing, our clientele are educated enough to allow us to put those procedures into place because what they want to experience here is good enough to be able to take those precautions to do that.’

The gift business: ‘People are buying earlier and ingredients are hard to source’

Sue Campbell is the founder of bar shampoo and conditioner business Kind2.

Sue was worried about how supply shortages would affect her small business (Picture: Sue Campbell)

Sue decided to prepare early for Christmas this year because of concerns about raw material shortages and inflation.

‘Being a small business, cash is tight. We usually order modest production runs and hold only around two months of mailing boxes,’ she says.

‘During the year there have been delays and rising costs of freight, and demand for one key ingredient has been increasing globally due to more solid products being made.

‘Rising demand for cardboard due to online shopping has meant some suppliers sold out late last year and prices of mailing boxes keep increasing.’

Sue prepared products for Christmas in August, instead of in October as usual due to concerns about product shortages, and ordered mailing boxes in September to beat price rises.

Sue says she is glad she has done this, as many people are stocking up earlier than usual for Christmas.

‘We have seen a significant increase in website traffic since the start of October with new customers buying multiples of our discovery size bars and some already telling us they are ‘stocking fillers’.

The hospitality venue: ‘No one wants a staycation right now’

Vicky Saynor runs luxury rural self-catering and retreat business Bethnal & Bec, in Hertfordshire.

Uncertainty means people aren’t booking festive staycations, says Vicky (Picture: Vicky Saynor)

Despite huge demand for staycations earlier in the year, she is not yet booked up for Christmas and worries that customers are feeling too uncertain to book.

‘We obviously had an awful year,’ she says. ‘We were closed for a very long time, and because we were a young business we fell between lots of cracks in terms of support.’

The company was fully booked for last Christmas, and then had to cancel all of its bookings due to the tier structure and eventual lockdown.

‘We’re normally already fully booked for Christmas by July, every year. This year, we’ve still got two retreats free,’ she says. ‘People are nervous still and insurance companies aren’t necessarily covering potential cancellations, or the premium is much, much higher. ‘The euphoria people had about being able to do things again has gone. We’re having to really market ourselves for Christmas and for the new year. January and February are looking awkwardly quiet.’

Vicky says that if there is another lockdown in this country it will be ‘really, really tough’ for the hospitality industry, but she feels that people are already planning to have Christmas at home because it seems more likely to happen.

‘I think because they closed everything down last year at such short notice, people are now actually reticent to book something and have to go through the whole painful rebooking or getting your money back.

‘People said to us when everything opened up again that we were so lucky to be in the staycation business. People were desperate to go away, but I think that euphoria has definitely passed.’

The experience venue: ‘Things are still not back to normal’

Lucy Gordon runs From Our Cellar, a food and drink marketplace that provides in-person tasting events.

Lucy has made contingency plans for her wine-tasting events (Picture: Lucy Gordon)

‘We offer private wine, beer, and spirit-tasting events, which are just perfect for a group of friends or corporate event,’ she says.

‘We only launched our company this summer, so we are unable to compare to last Christmas, however we are conscious that things are still not back to normal this year, so we are taking that into account as much as possible.’

Because of this, although Lucy is booking in-person events, she has contingency plans in place to move them online.

‘We really do want customers to feel assured that no matter the Covid rule changes their event can still go ahead,’ Lucy continues.

‘So provided that we are given at least one week’s notice to make sure we have the time to deliver the samples to the recipients, an in-person event can easily be switched to virtual.

‘We think this a great option for a company Christmas party or a family who live at opposite ends of the country.’

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