Independent voices

rob hoult

The best of times. The worst of times.

Rob Hoult of Hoults Wine Merchants in Huddersfield reflects on a bittersweet week on the retailing front line


They say that a week is a long time in politics. But crikey, it’s a hell of a long time if you’re a wine merchant, too.

Obviously it was a week of momentous changes for all of us. Normally March seems to race along at an alarming speed and we’re working out our first VAT bill of the year before we know it. This year it seems to be dragging and there’s still over a week left as I write this.

A week ago, I thought it was the beginning of the end. I cautiously put in orders for stock knowing that at any point we could lose our wholesale business. I didn’t want to be sat on piles of unsold wine for weeks and I have to think about my suppliers too. Saturday had been quiet, and Monday was following suit. Malaise was in the air.

Tuesday saw us try and work out some changes to the business going forward but the constant flow of customers curtailed this. By the end of the day, we’d had our second busiest retail day of the year, and it was a bloody Tuesday.

Each day got busier. Friday was daft, but Saturday … well Saturday required every ounce of my retail skill as we doubled Friday’s sales and I tried to keep customers happy whilst working around the massive holes in our range caused by my cagey buying, and the sudden fact that we were selling the most in-demand grocery item in the land.

We’re all in this together: every person, every business, and every country. So chin up – we’ll be fine

By 4pm, when it started to quieten down, we’d had our best-ever retail week outside of Christmas trading. We’d also had to shut our wine bar and effectively lost all of our wholesale trade. As such I didn’t feel as jubilant as a week’s trading like that would suggest. Normally a week of selling like that would leave me pumped up like Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer in Top Gun, except with much less sand, slightly fewer volley balls and only marginally less latent homoeroticism. In fact, I just felt glum.

Yes, we’d put money in the bank, but it’s only there to pay bills and cash is not the same as cash flow. When I think of how tough it must be for my wholesale customers; when I think of how difficult it is for my fellow independent retailers who don’t, through sheer luck, sell wine; and when I think about all the other businesses that are suffering from this then it would be easy to think the worst.

There are, however, positives. Firstly, and from a purely retail perspective, it’s March and not November. Secondly, we are all in this together: every person, every business and every country. So chin up – we’ll be fine.

Thirdly, one of the true joys of retail is the customers themselves. I have literally talked myself hoarse over the last week. I have chatted to people from every walk of life, from binmen to ICU nurses, from CEOs to retired folk at risk the most. They have all been upbeat and happy to chat and the sense of camaraderie has been wonderful. It’s reminded me of the old days when we had a corner shop and everyone knew everyone and, even more importantly, wanted to know everyone’s business. A shop acting as a central point of a community was what made it work then, and it’s what makes it work now.

I wrote this Saturday night. We closed on Sunday to just get some rest. On Monday we opened as normal, but then I decided to close the shop from Tuesday morning and just do deliveries or customers could collect from the car park.

Obviously, as is the nature of this situation, that all changed again after Monday’s announcement and we are now only doing home delivery. I’m sure we could look to bend the rules a little and stay open somehow, but I’m conscious that we need to make sure that we stay on the right side of all this.

We will get through it and we will be stronger. We’re going to need to be, because that is some tax bill that is going to be coming our way. Every cloud, and all that.

March 24, 2020