Retail Reflections: A gift-giving ritual; finding solace in festive sales

Alan Monahan writes: When it comes to Christmas, grandads are apparently bottom of the country’s shopping lists. Indeed, people buy more gifts for their pets!

But had Barclays interviewed me for their survey which yielded this information I would have told them that I must be the exception. I find my wife’s festive generosity positively embarrassing. When the presents are handed out on Christmas morning – with excited grandchildren ripping open their parcels – I am far from forgotten.

As in previous years, my wife is already wearing her gift from me and waiting for the ‘surprise’ present I have struggled to source. The unwritten rule is that this should come in a small box and sparkle.

I make no such demands. Like many men of my age, I announce every year in response to the ‘What do you want?’ question: ‘Really, there’s nothing, thank you. If I need anything I’ll go out and buy it.’ And while need shouldn’t be confused with desire, that sales line, ‘For the man who has everything’, certainly doesn’t apply to me.

As I write, my 10-year-old Merc is languishing in the local garage where it has been for the past three weeks. To cut a long story short, I tried to reverse it out of the nearby Waitrose car park but it stubbornly refused to budge and was eventually removed on a low-loader when the store closed. I am still waiting for a new gear selector to be sent from Germany (cost £402). It is expected in January, but no date has been specified.

With your cries of ‘You should have bought British’ ringing in my ears, I want to place on record that I would really love a new car for Christmas. But I don’t need it as I am sharing my wife’s vehicle. And mine will eventually be repaired. I hope.

What will happen on December 25th is that we will go through the usual present-giving ritual. I will receive a string of unasked for gifts from my wife: these will nevertheless be gratefully accepted. There will definitely not be a pewter hip flask among them, although I do expect some conservative clothing … a jumper perhaps; maybe a shirt, and definitely the ubiquitous navy blue socks. She knows what I don’t like. You get the picture.

My wife will be handed her ‘surprise’ present from me – and this year, much more! It’s probably my guilty conscience, but she knows I am a tad concerned that, because her presents to me always pile up in my lap as she nurtures a single tiny box, other members of the family may regard me as something of a Scrooge.

I have therefore bought her, in addition to a delightful little ring, a string of extra ‘surprise’ gifts, including a handbag and silk scarves (yes, plural!). I haven’t been a cheapskate, but you’ll also see I’m going for quantity here! And no, she won’t find out what she’s getting as she never reads this column.

It’s fanciful to imagine that old men all over the country will undergo a similar Damascene conversion and rush to the shops to buy lots of presents for their wives.

I wish they would. At the moment, anything – however small – that helps to lift the retail gloom which engulfs us will be seized upon as a positive sign that the tide is turning.

The Federation of Small Businesses says that confidence among UK small firms has fallen to its lowest point since 2011 because of Brexit uncertainty. And while it may be one reason that bricks and mortar retailers are suffering, it isn’t the primary cause.

The reality is that one in every three pounds of non-food purchases was made online in November, while Black Friday accelerated the movement from in-store to internet in the lead-up to Christmas. And as the British Retail Consortium points out, the Black Friday discounting period also began earlier for a large number of retailers, which hit footfall across a longer period over the month.

And there is only so much disposable income.

I thought that the whole thing was done and dusted when I recently reported that retailers had won their long-running case against the Valuation Office Agency (VOA), which meant they would not have to pay business rates separately on ATMs attached to shops.

I should have known better. It appears that the VOA is set to lodge a petition to appeal against the decision. If the appeal is successful it would mean that retailers would miss out on £382m of backdated rates refunds they had expected to receive, as well as relief on future tax bills.

Benjamin Franklin wrote that nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. What is also certain is that our government is taxing to death those retailers with physical stores. For many of them it has truly been an annus horribilis, and it would be foolish to suppose that there will be any change in their fortunes in the short-term.

With that in mind, I particularly hope that the small independent shops that have struggled this year will find some solace in festive sales that meet or exceed their expectations.

I wish you all a happy Christmas and a healthy and prosperous New Year and hope to be back with you in 2019 with more retail reflections.

Jewellery by Lucky Dip and jumper from John Lewis