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The snow was costly - now we need a flake-free March

11 January 2011

Despite data from the British Retail Consortium showing overall sales values fell by only 0.3% in December, the snow cost small companies dearly. Now they're hoping the snow stays well away in March.

Jonathan Sinclair, the owner of Lowden Garden Centre in Shaw near Melksham, Wiltshire, has told FP Express he lost 15% - £15,000 - of his earnings over Christmas thanks to the coldest December on record.

At the time, Mr Sinclair said although farmers hadn't faced a problem getting their turkeys to him in time for the Christmas rush, the problem now was customers were staying away owing to the weather.

''This situation benefits the supermarkets as the roads leading to them, and their supply arteries, are open,'' he said. ''To make matters worse, we don't take deposits for turkey orders which means customers aren't obliged to buy the product,'' he said.

This system of orders is common in rural areas where they are based on trust and verbal agreement. As it turned out, the customers were more loyal than Mr Sinclair had imagined. ''All my turkeys got picked up in the end,'' he said. ''Despite the terrible conditions, the orders were honoured.''

Nonetheless, Mr Sinclair's garden centre still lost money. And although he says the snow plays less of a role in January and February, it will become crucial again in March. That's when the country is gearing up for Easter - an important date on the commercial calendar.

A spell of weather as bad as we saw in December is not out of the question, particularly as historically, March isn't averse to furious snow flurries. Mr Sinclair says when there's heavy snow, he's at the mercy of the councils and how quickly they clean up the snow. Around here, the snow did affect many small producers because they're so remote.''

With respect to the money which many small businesses lost as a result of the snow, Mr Sinclair is critical of the banks. ''They're not lending to small businesses,'' he says. ''If you tell them you've had a really bad month owing to the weather, they'll still refuse to loan you money. Their only message is: get your debt down.''

This is frustrating for many reasons, not least because, as Mr Sinclair says: ''We're a profitable business - I want to expand so I can compete against the supermarkets. How can I do that when I get no help from the banks?''

Mr Sinclair's view that the supermarkets had benefitted from the snow crisis seemed to be borne out by the statistics. These revealed Sainsbury's had a merry Christmas, overtaking Asda to become the UK's second biggest supermarket, with a 3.6% rise in like-for-like sales.

Meanwhile sales at the internet grocer Ocada surged 43.5% in the Christmas week, compared to December 2009. The company is said to have seen strong growth through the year with gross sales reaching £551.1m for the 52-week period.

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