Diary of a Wine Merchant: The Covid Years- Part I

April 15, 2021

Diary of a Wine Merchant: The Covid Years- Part I

Back in spring 2020, Chris was asked to write a piece for the Wine Merchant Mag, a specialist trade publication, about his thoughts during, what was then, an unprecedented national lockdown. Published in May, we present the text to you here-

Frightened, but perhaps enlightened

Chris Connolly of Birmingham independent merchant Connolly's takes stock of a nerve-wracking few months - and begins to plot a path to recovery out of the coronavirus wreckage

FML, where do you start?

I remember just after Christmas being seriously brassed off by a customer who had had umpteen samples and demanded endless list re-writes before announcing that someone else was marginally cheaper so they were going to transfer the business to them. I was bloody fuming, incandescent, beyond seething. But I wasn’t scared. Now I’m spending a lot of time feeling scared. Not worried as in “business is a bit slow, how are we going to pay the VAT” but “are my loved ones going to survive this?” scared. Business worries come in a very distant second. Even Brexit pales into insignificance.

Life for the vast majority in post war Britain has been pretty good all things considered; the occasional economic blip but largely pretty good. We’ve got used to being safe and secure, SARS, Bird Flu, Ebola were all things that affected other people – then midnight struck on December 31st and 2020 knocked on the door with a scythe over his shoulder saying “here’s Johnny!”

So, January was ok; we had a sale which went well, shifted a lot of “slower moving stock” and made way for the tidal wave of new arrivals that we went in search of. Heard a few stories about Wuhan (wtf is Wuhan?) and dismissed them ‘cos it’s on the other side of the planet and it’ll be just like Bird Flu that turned out to be something and nothing, mind you, you’ve got to wonder how on earth they shut down a whole country haven’t you? And then it hit Italy and suddenly things started to feel a bit more real, particularly if you were running short of bog paper. But interestingly, although those folk who, 3 months previously had been telling us that “we’d got through 2 world wars so Brexit will be fine” were now scrapping in supermarket aisles over the last tin of chopped tomatoes, the hospitality industry remained reasonably buoyant and, if anything, retail started to gather momentum.

Moving into March, it became all too evident that this was not something that would, somehow or other, miraculously disappear whatever the leader of the free world might have to say on the matter. Lockdowns that had initially been restricted to Lombardy were extended to cover the whole of Italy, numbers from across the globe edged frighteningly higher and, by the middle of the month, the hospitality business was in freefall and sleepless nights were spent rehearsing the difficult conversations that needed to be held. The sense of relief when Rishi Sunak shook the magic money tree and the furlough scheme fell out was almost overwhelming.

When the lockdown started we took the decision to close both shops which remains the case to date albeit we are starting to put measures in place in preparation for re-opening shortly. In the meantime, the small but perfectly formed team that remain at the coal face are running a ridiculously busy home delivery service. How much longer it can continue is open to question and the end of lockdown will, presumably, sound its death knell but, for the moment, it is keeping the tills ringing and bringing us to the attention of a lot of new customers.

Where do we go from here? Ask me in twelve months. The government’s strategy on ending the lockdown remains a mystery but one thing of which we can be sure is that hospitality is a vaccine away from returning to its former glory so those of us who have spent the past 40 years building businesses to service the industry are going to have to get creative. Which I actually find quite exciting. And maybe just a little bit scary.

To read it in situ, a digital copy of the article (and whole magazine) can be found here





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