Millar's Tale: January Blues

I used to quite like January.

It was a predictable and reassuring anticlimax to December’s frantic retailing; a bit of a breather before easing back into work with some not-strictly-necessary Burgundy en primeur, or perhaps a smattering of tasty Christmas leftovers gathered together in a bin end sale. There are no surprises to the average January.

Normally, at this stage of the year, I’d be sitting in a pub, eating, drinking and maybe smoking a big cigar with two pairs of gloves on, safe in the knowledge that I’d have the place to myself, except for a few other hardened regulars. There would be the lady with the liquorice Rizlas who plays a lot of online chess, the annoying music producer who has a studio next door and likes to name-drop all his clients very loudly, and the bloke who is always there on the same barstool looking into the middle distance.

With the nation’s hopes for Christmas gatherings raised and then ruined, the continued deprivation of colleagues, friends and even face-to-face interaction with customers is feeling increasingly painful, not least because the government’s policy seems to be to over-promise and under-deliver wherever possible, creating a cruel see-saw of raised expectations and disappointing realities.

This is, I concede, a distinctly first-world problem, but sociability is not just a fundamental human instinct, it is, after all, the raison d’être of the wine trade. Most of us are not actually here to sit on panels, dish out scores and medals or write columns. We’re here to help people come together, share bottles and have a good time.

Yet much of the average independent merchant’s business over the past months has become virtual in a way that wasn’t anticipated, and – even though it might be profitable – isn’t entirely the point of running a small, hands-on business. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

Perhaps Covid will change our buying habits for good. Maybe we will all abandon bricks and mortar and get everything delivered from Amazon, propelling Jeff Bezos ever closer to Mars. But I think Newton’s third law applies here: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Customers aren’t choosing to buy online by choice, but by necessity or because the alternative is excessively inconvenient.

It may be that some lost souls have only recently discovered that you don’t have to go to the shop to get toilet roll or baked beans and instead you can get someone to deliver them in a van – and 2020 shall be the year of their revelation – but I suspect many shoppers are gasping for the thrill of buying stuff they don’t need in a shop they weren’t planning to visit before deciding that it was all pretty thirsty work and it’s time for a pint.

More seriously, Unilever’s boss Alan Jope stated that the company’s workers will not return to their desks five days a week, but he also acknowledged that much of the traditional office’s value was based on “social capital”. I presume this sterile phrase means that all those post-work G&Ts actually count for something in the end.

They always have. Although it might be difficult for an accountant to quantify the importance of such intangibles, there is no question that, having lost them, we now realise they had value. I am looking forward to the traditional wine trade dinners with colleagues as much as I am to that very ordinary pint in the pub with friends, and the vague smell of liquorice Rizlas on the air.

Jason Millar is the Retail Director at wine merchant Theatre of Wine

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