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A severe dose of realism

Q&A with Alan Martin, co-owner of Food for Thought in Kingston and Guildford plus Oliver’s Wholefood, Kew. We asked him about the collapse of Tree of Life, the rescue of The Health Store by Queenswood, coping with the disruption and the effect of the cost-of-living crisis. He went looking for a crystal ball that he seems to have mislaid...

Q How were you affected when Tree of Life went into administration and The Health Store was taken over by Queenswood?

We didn’t use ToL so there was no impact on the business, but personally I was saddened to hear the news. With THS, not entirely surprised. We had actually been diverting to Queenswood and Infinity to make up a shortfall from THS.

When the news broke we were able to switch over to other wholesalers fairly quickly to minimise the disruption to our business.

[Alan also expressed some disappointment in the lack of continuity both before and after these events which are probably to be expected at a time of such upheaval, so we are giving THS and Queenswood every opportunity to address matters in this and future issues – editor.]

Q For example, were there any products you simply couldn’t get for your shelves and how did you get around this?

There are many products we are just resigned to not being able to get anymore, such as Hu chocolate, Dillon organic keto bread and Wiley’s fish oil to name but a few. One supplier that we have started depending on more is Cotswold Fayre who are providing us with a few new product ranges that have taken off really quite spectacularly.

Q Did suppliers respond by supplying direct or finding new distribution?

Most of the major suppliers contacted us very quickly to offer direct buying. We have been reluctant to start increasing dealing direct mainly because of the current state of the economy. Footfall is down and the customers we do have are spending less so we are hesitant to increase the number of suppliers – new accounts for each of our three stores means three additional payments to make and generally having to hold more stock at a time of slowdown.

Q How did your customers react to any disruption caused?

I think with all that has happened recently – the pandemic, Brexit, the Ukraine war, rising costs etc. – our customers had a little bit of a moan but are taking these events in their stride.

Q More generally, what effect is the cost-of-living crisis having on your business?

As I’ve mentioned, footfall is down, spending is down and more customers are using cash as they say it’s easier to budget. Customers talk to us and the general mood is gloomy. People are worried, fearful and concerned for both the long-term future and more immediately, for example Christmas.

Q And finally, how does the current situation rate compared with any other economic ‘wobbles’ or ‘crises’ the industry has been through, both historically and recently?

Historically we have dealt more positively in the past with recessions. In fact, we can show growth in previous recessionary times. Even during the financial crisis of 2008 we survived and came out the other end stronger than before. However, now it feels different – the perfect storm of financial turmoil, political turmoil and warnings of more pain to come. How do we survive? For once I am not really sure.

I do know that to weather the storm we have to adapt and evolve. But into what? That’s what I am still trying to figure out and I know we don’t have the luxury of time to work out what we do differently. Oh, for a crystal ball!

Can you help Alan find his crystal ball? Have you got a story or comment that may help fellow independents to see some light at the end of the tunnel? We would like to hear from you about how you have found ways to resolve supply issues and retain customers in this period of retail crisis. Email the editor, [email protected].

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