Long hailed by the serious picnicking classes and purveyors of expensive corporate gifts as the world’s poshest lunch box, the Fortnum & Mason hamper has been satisfying the luxury cravings of the British establishment at home and abroad for more than three centuries.
Yet the appetite for high-class potted meats, biscuits and bubbly shows little sign of being sated as London’s oldest grocer reported soaring profits yesterday fuelled in part by the extraordinary success of its famous basket of victuals.
The retailer, which was founded in Piccadilly in 1707, said turnover surged in the run-up to Christmas – defying the experience of less blue-blooded high street rivals Tesco, Morrisons and Marks & Spencer which were all squeezed by the shift to budget supermarkets.
From a humble £50 creel containing tea and marmalade to the £5,000 Imperial collection, complete with royal fillet of salmon, a magnum of Champagne, foie gras and caviar, Fortnum said sales of hampers were up 15 per cent and now stood at at a 300-year high. In total 200,000 hampers were sold by the royal warrant holder in 2013.
It follows the embarrassing debacle in 2011 when a computer glitch at its distribution centre resulted in Fortnum & Mason customers failing to receive their hampers in time for Christmas and the company being forced to compensate irate shoppers
Chief executive Ewan Venters said consumers were opting to concentrate reduced resources on smaller quantities of higher quality goods for loved ones. Despite the influx of foreign wealth to the capital in recent years he said six out of 10 shoppers were from the UK.
“Christmas at Fortnum’s was one of the best yet, both in terms of sales and customer satisfaction. The demand for more bespoke luxurious items, together with the Christmas staples, is at an all-time high, suggesting that consumers still want to treat themselves during the festive period,” Mr Venters said.
It marks a significant recovery from results posted last year when the company was left counting the cost of its late hampers and a 70 per cent collapse in profits.
But the move towards high end products saw a 133 per cent spike in sales of truffles and growing demand for candles, vintage port and Turkish Delight. There were also record sales of mince pies and Christmas biscuits and puddings.
Total sales up to July were £65m, an increase of 10 per cent on the previous year, whilst profit before tax was £1.8m - a five-fold increase on 2012. In the five weeks up to 5 January sales were up 16 per cent with strong growth also reported for on-line goods.
The Fortnum & Mason hamper became a prerequisite for the travelling gentleman of Georgian England disaffected by the prospect of bad roads and even worse food. Many would embark on stage coaches from outside the shop which also claims to have invented the scotch egg around the same time.
The hamper later became a stalwart of the Victorian social summer season and was a required accompaniment to picnics at Cowes, Henley or the Epson Derby. It meanwhile became a symbol of imperial ambition during the high age of empire accompanying Henry Morton Stanley on his adventures up the Congo as well as providing succour to Florence Nightingale’s patients in the Crimea.
The unsuccessful 1922 Everest expedition was fuelled in 60 tins of quail in foie gras and four dozen bottles of vintage champagne supplied by the shop. Since then other retailers have sought a share of the market with nearly all major department stores now offering their own version.
In 2011 the store was targeted by protesters from UK Uncut demonstrating over alleged tax avoidance.
This year Fortnum opened a new store at London’s St Pancras station– the first since its Piccadilly flagship three centuries ago. The company, which is owned by the Canadian Weston family, said sales “significantly exceeded expectations”. It will open a new store in Dubai in 2014.