Boris Johnson Does Wonders for Turkey Sales

Britain’s retailers and restaurant groups thought it couldn’t get worse after the November Covid lockdown. It just did.

The U.K. government’s announcement of new ultra-stringent “Tier 4” restrictions in London and the southeast of the country — closing non-essential shops and telling people to stay home where possible — inflicts another blow on struggling store groups. The British Retail Consortium, the industry’s trade body, said stores would lose 2 billion pounds ($2.4 billion) a week under the new restrictions.

Supermarkets will be a short-term exception to the slowdown after Boris Johnson was forced to abandon his plan to let three households mix over the holidays. As more people have to make Christmas meals in their own homes, that will clear turkeys and other food from the grocer’s shelves. But even this industry fillip will be short lived if the disruption of the goods trade continues between Dover and Calais because of Covid-19 restrictions or, worse, the failure to secure a U.K.-European Union trade deal.        

The pain for non-food retailers is immediate. They’ll be unable to benefit from lastminute holiday gift buying. With courier networks already stretched to capacity, it’s probably too late for frustrated shoppers to order online before Christmas Day. This limits the catchup from internet sales.

The new restrictions will also cover the Boxing Day sales period, traditionally busy for city centers, malls and retailers such as home furnishings and electronics groups. While there’s still scope to compensate for this via websites, the loss of store sales will be damaging.

Frasers Group Plc, owner of Sports Direct and House of Fraser department stores, on Monday withdrew its guidance — made just 10 days ago — that 2021 Ebitda would be be 20%-30% higher than 2020’s. It blamed the new restrictions affecting its busiest trading period, and the prospect of further rolling lockdowns early next year.

One shred of comfort is that most gift buying will have been done by now. Retail sales in September and October indicated that consumers, wary of further lockdowns and a rush for online deliveries, were beginning their Christmas shopping earlier this year.

From now on, most of people’s focus will be on food shopping. Many larger turkeys will have already been ordered and paid for. And the increase in demand for turkey crowns — breasts on the bone — indicated that many households were planning on smaller celebrations anyway. But the dropping of the three-household mixing rule in southeast England will encourage a rush of supermarket visits as shoppers stock their refrigerators.

That’s a nice problem for supermarkets to have, as is any shortage of turkeys. Shoppers could opt for other meat, such as chicken or ham. Add in all the trimmings and grocers are likely to see the volume of food and drink sales rise considerably.

France’s temporary decision to close its border with the U.K. is a concern, though. There’s a danger that supplies of fresh foods, including citrus fruit, potatoes, broccoli, cauliflowers, lettuces and tomatoes, could become scarce if the situation isn’t resolved quickly. While goods can enter the U.K. from France, trade with Europe relies on lorries constantly travelling back and forward in a timely manner. If trucks can’t get out of England with their deliveries, then they can’t bring goods back in from exporters such as Spain and Morocco.

Add in extra households buying, together with some panic purchases, and empty shelves could return eventually. That hasn’t been seen since the start of the pandemic in March,

At a time of heightened demand, any longer term disruption would be very difficult for retailers, and consumers, to live with.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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