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The Very Group shipping million parcels a week for Christmas

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the very group shipping million parcels a week for christmas

Standing in a giant warehouse on a grey October morning somewhere in the Midlands, it’s impossible to escape the uncomfortable feeling that Christmas won’t be very merry for shops this year. 

From here, Henry Birch – chief executive of £2billion online retail giant The Very Group – is already shipping out a million parcels a week. 

By the week of Black Friday at the end of November, that number will increase to 1.5million packed and loaded by more than 800 staff and 500 brand new robots – machines specifically designed to slash costs and cut the time it takes to get orders out of the door. 

While the ring of high street tills feels increasingly hollow, Birch can say with unflinching certainty that he’s ready for his biggest festive season yet. 

Sales at his Very.co.uk website rose 36 per cent in the three months to the end of June and demand has continued in ‘double digits’ since. 

'Tough call': Henry Birch pressed on with the plan to set up one huge site

'Tough call': Henry Birch pressed on with the plan to set up one huge site

‘Tough call’: Henry Birch pressed on with the plan to set up one huge site

‘We see the strong trading continuing. We’re going into this with momentum and from a position of confidence. Our feeling is that we are going to have a record Black Friday and Christmas – stronger than we’ve ever had before.’ 

Many online firms are already calling it ‘Black November’ – a month of discounts and incentives for shoppers to buy early but, more critically, online. 

Birch explains – for obvious reasons – that ‘consumer sentiment seems to be around staying away from the high street and shopping online’. 

The smooth running of the warehouse is clearly bolstering that confidence. It was scheduled to go operational on the day Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced lockdown on March 23. The Very Group pushed ahead with the plan – beginning from a standing start meant it was easier to assimilate Covid-19 safety measures than at some rival operations – consolidating two existing warehouses in the North West to this one. 

‘We had a tough call to make and we made a decision to go ahead,’ says Birch, whose group also owns the Littlewoods brand. 

‘It was the right thing to do in retrospect. We’ve seen a huge sales growth since March and that’s been underpinned by having this place fully operational,’ he says. 

Skygate, as the 850,000 sq ft warehouse is known, is the company’s shop floor, while the Very website is its shop window. It is strategically placed in the middle of the country, buttressed by East Midlands Airport on one side and the M1 motorway on the other. 

Rail links, vastly improved efficiencies and its central location mean it has cut about a million miles from its transport budget. And, Birch is quick to point out, it has cut carbon emissions too. 

Birch says the company – founded by Merseyside businessman and Littlewoods catalogue creator John Moores, after whom Liverpool’s second university is named – is absolutely ’embedded’ in Liverpool where its head office remains, adding that being in the region is a ‘competitive advantage’ with so many other online firms there. But the retreat from Shaw in Oldham and Little Hulton near Manchester was a painful one, described by one commentator on its announcement as ‘another dark day’ in UK retail but which insiders say was dealt with as sensitively as possible given the circumstances. 

34794228 8875159 image m 277 1603563446553

34794228 8875159 image m 277 1603563446553

Birch, a diplomat’s son who previously ran William Hill’s online gambling business, acknowledges the sophisticated warehouse means he needs to employ around 1,000 fewer staff. The robots that have replaced the product pickers resemble kids’ ride-on sports cars – complete with neon headlights. 

But the company sees automation as the key to success in an arms race in which smaller – or weaker – players in retail will increasingly struggle to compete. 

In the warehouse is a machine that packs up 1,500 items an hour, with more to come following its initial success, and huge conveyor belts that pre-sort parcels rather than leaving the job to distribution firms on the outside. 

‘We can go from receiving an order to getting it out of the door in 30 minutes. The speed of getting things in and out of here is impressive,’ he observes as we walk across the highest mezzanine. Previously, the process took four hours. 

As a result of that, The Very Group will seek to dispatch orders immediately rather than, as many firms do on Black Friday, pushing out delivery promises by a week or more – a delay tactic that is employed in a desperate effort not to turn away trade during such unprecedented demand.

34794230 8875159 image m 279 1603563470059

34794230 8875159 image m 279 1603563470059

During lockdown, demand changed significantly. Very was shipping out 300 jacuzzis and spas each day at the peak of lockdown, dispatching them as quickly as they arrived in the warehouse, and fashion sales fell even though Birch says he managed to increase market share. 

He adds some hope for clobbered fashion retailers: ‘We’re definitely seeing a recovery in fashion – whether people will decide that finally they want to treat themselves for Christmas Day or whenever they can meaningfully go out after that.’ 

But he says its ‘harder to call’ overall consumer spending beyond the further shift online.

‘Anecdotally, I think people are going to want to celebrate Christmas, treat their kids, and have something to look forward to. I think it feels like it will be a normal Christmas, if not a better Christmas in terms of overall trading. 

‘I just think people are going to take more time planning and buying for Christmas this year. They’re going out less, sitting at home online. I think people have got more time on their hands. 

‘They want something to look forward to and at the moment Christmas is something of a light at the end of the tunnel.’ 

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How I won access to my disabled son’s frozen Child Trust Fund savings

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how i won access to my disabled sons frozen child trust fund savings
Victory! Catherine, her husband John and her 17-year-old son Oliver

Victory! Catherine, her husband John and her 17-year-old son Oliver

Victory! Catherine, her husband John and her 17-year-old son Oliver 

The mother of a 17-year-old boy with profound learning disabilities who would be unable to access his Child Trust Fund cash when he became an adult has won her battle to unlock more than £2,000 in frozen funds.

In one of the first reported examples of the parents of a disabled child succeeding in an attempt to access their money, Catherine, from Worcestershire, will be able to manage her son Oliver’s funds when he turns 18 next April.

Catherine wrote to her son’s Child Trust Fund provider, OneFamily, at the start of October after the mutual’s savings chief told This is Money parents affected by the CTF lockout should get in touch and their cases would be looked at ‘sensitively and with compassion’.

She fed this quote back to the Brighton-based mutual, which looks after a quarter of CTFs and finally had confirmation at the start of this month she would be able to look after her son’s money when he turns 18, saving her thousands of pounds in court fees.

It is a rare example of a happy outcome to a problem affecting as many as 200,000 disabled young children who cannot currently access their own savings due to their disabilities making them unable to manage money and make their own decisions.

The Government and industry bodies are currently in discussions over long-term solutions to the problem, with some individual CTF providers currently deciding on a case-by-case basis whether to allow parents to access the money on their child’s behalf.

Without a solution parents face the prospect of a costly application to the Court of Protection to get permission to become a ‘deputy’ and manage the money on their child’s behalf, eating into the savings and completely wiping them out in some cases.

‘No one ever indicated at any stage that there would be problems accessing Oliver’s money’ 

Catherine, who only wanted to provide her surname, faced the prospect of this earlier this year when OneFamily wrote to her son Oliver when he turned 17 to tell him his trust fund would mature in 2021.

What’s the problem? 

Campaigners warn as many as 200,000 disabled children face the same issue as Oliver, that they are unable to access CTF money because of their lack of mental capacity, due to their disabilities. 

While some have been warning about the problems facing the first batch of trust fund teenagers turning 18 this year for years, the issue has only really come to light in the last few months.

In order to access the money, carers, guardians and parents must apply to become a ‘deputy’, which involves an application to the Court of Protection.

The court application can cost £365 plus up to £2,500 in solicitors’ fees.

Campaigners and families have complained this problem was never made clear to parents, who continued to pay money into a savings ‘lobster pot’, that their child could not get the money out of.

This is despite the fact those children on Disability Living Allowance were given extra payments into their trust funds.

The Government has insisted the measures are needed to prevent the children from being exploited.  

He had just over £2,000 in his account, she said, thanks to a combination of birthday cash from his grandparents and higher government vouchers due to his ‘profound learning disabilities’.

At this point she began to wonder if there might be a problem accessing the funds, something which the mutual confirmed to her at the start of June. 

It told her she needed to apply the Court of Protection to become a deputy in order to access the money on his behalf.

This is despite the fact the Government had handed him more money because of his disabilities and allowed her to manage his benefits when he turned 16.

She told This is Money: ‘No one ever indicated at any stage that there would be problems accessing Oliver’s money. 

‘The Government were, at the time, actively encouraging parents and grandparents to add to the CTF for the child’s future.

‘Had we known, or even suspected, that there would be difficulties accessing the funds, we would never have encouraged Oliver’s grandparents to add to it at birthdays. 

‘They would have put the money in a different account.’

Having ‘almost given up all will’ at the prospect of tackling the Court of Protection forms, she discovered the story This is Money published at the end of September. 

OneFamily’s head of investments had told us in the article that ‘in certain circumstances it may be possible to release funds if sufficient proof of identification can be provided by the person responsible for managing the young person’s finances.’

How a line from a company statement helped me access my child’s frozen funds 

‘I phoned OneFamily, quoting their head of investment directly from your article,’ Catherine said when she first contacted us at the start of October. 

‘The lady on the phone was very cagey and asked several times where I had read this.

‘She then put me on hold for 20 minutes. When she came back, her tone had changed, and she was very helpful. 

‘She asked if I had any supporting evidence such as a doctor’s letter? I burst out laughing; as the parent and carer of a profoundly disabled young person, you have files full of professional letters and reports.’

She sent over a letter with attached documents a day later on 9 October, which were received on 12 October. 

However, she never received a reply to confirm OneFamily had received the documents and attempted follow-ups through its online messaging service on 17 and 22 October were also unanswered.

Catherine came across a story This is Money published at end of September highlighting the problem affecting as many as 200,000 disabled children

Catherine came across a story This is Money published at end of September highlighting the problem affecting as many as 200,000 disabled children

Catherine came across a story This is Money published at end of September highlighting the problem affecting as many as 200,000 disabled children

But after making a formal written complaint about the lack of a response from the mutual on 25 October, she finally received some good news at the start of this month.

In a letter dated 5 November, the letter apologised for the delay in responding to her and said: ‘The information you’ve provided makes it clear Oliver will be unable to manage the closure, and that you can do so instead.

‘I’ve enclosed a declaration document for you along with a return envelope. Please complete and send this to us when you can. 

Do you have a OneFamily CTF? 

This is Money asked the mutual which looks after one in four CTFs what parents in the same situation as Catherine needed to do. 

Its head of investments, Paul Bridgwater, said: ‘Every case is different, but in some circumstances it is possible to release the funds if sufficient proof of identification can be provided by the person responsible for managing the young person’s finances.

‘We aim to review each application sensitively and with compassion, and would encourage all customers who may be in this position to get in touch, so that we can give them all the support that they need.’

‘Upon receipt, we’ll pend the instruction until Oliver’s 18th birthday in April next year.’

Catherine told This is Money she had returned the declaration form which should mean she can access her son’s Child Trust Fund cash without penalty next year.

In response to Catherine’s case, Paul Bridgwater, OneFamily’s head of investments, said: ‘I’m very sorry for the delay Catherine experienced in receiving a response from us. It’s definitely not the service that we aim to give. 

‘Unfortunately, our team of specialists who handle enquiries of this nature became overwhelmed by the sheer volume of applications that were received in October.

‘However, this should not have happened, and we have subsequently increased the size of our team.

‘I can’t comment specifically on Catherine’s case, for confidentiality reasons. 

‘However, it became clear to us earlier this year that the child trust fund maturity procedures, as defined by HMRC, would not meet the needs of all of our customers.

‘Therefore, we supported our industry bodies in lobbying the Ministry of Justice for new draft guidance to help families in this position. 

‘In the meantime, we chose to adopt a more flexible and customer focused approach, to see if there might be way for customers like Oliver to be able to access their balances without the need of a Court of Protection Order.’

The Ministry of Justice told This is Money at the end of last month that proposals handed to it by TISA, which represents CTF providers, were ‘being considered’ and that it would ‘respond shortly.’

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Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Land Rover with a fully working kitchen to be auctioned

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hugh fearnley whittingstalls land rover with a fully working kitchen to be auctioned

A bespoke Land Rover ‘Gastrowagon’ that featured in the popular River Cottage television series with celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is to be offered to the highest bidder next month.

The 1982 Land Rover 109 will be one of a selection of collectible vehicles available at the next Bonhams MPH Sale on 11 December.

An entirely unique motor, it features a fully functioning kitchen at the back with a two-burner hob, oven, and even a fridge.

Meals on wheels: TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Land Rover used in his River Cottage Series will be sold at auction next month

Meals on wheels: TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Land Rover used in his River Cottage Series will be sold at auction next month

Meals on wheels: TV chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Land Rover used in his River Cottage Series will be sold at auction next month

The 1982 Landie has a fully operating kitchen in the back. A built-in fridge, oven, worktop and drawers are accompanied by a double-burner hob and a sink that fold down from inside the rear doors

The 1982 Landie has a fully operating kitchen in the back. A built-in fridge, oven, worktop and drawers are accompanied by a double-burner hob and a sink that fold down from inside the rear doors

The 1982 Landie has a fully operating kitchen in the back. A built-in fridge, oven, worktop and drawers are accompanied by a double-burner hob and a sink that fold down from inside the rear doors

The 4X4 has recently been completely restored and is estimated to sell for between £25,000 to 35,000 when the hammer drops in a matter of weeks.

The 1982 long wheelbase 109 Land Rover, which has been converted to a camper-cum-kitchen, became familiar to viewers of the chef’s 1990s series ‘A Cook on the Wild Side’, as Hugh’s transport in which he toured the British countryside in search of wild ingredients.

Built especially for the television show, the Gastrowagon has a fully operating kitchen that extends from the rear section of the vehicle, with a worktop, drawers, fridge and oven fitted into the back of the Land Rover.

The double-burner hobs and sink are fitted to the inside of the rear doors. Once folded out, it creates a fully operational kitchen.

Additional table tops stored inside the Land Rover can also be attached to create a huge outdoor cooking space. 

The back also has a wind and waterproof canopy so a user can whip up their favourite dish no matter what the weather conditions. 

Sleeping accommodation is provided by a roof-mounted upturned boat and ancillaries include a shower and basin that appear from another hidden fold-out panel on the right-hand-side of the vehicle.

Sleeping accommodation is provided by an upturned boat that's mounted onto the roof of the classic Land Rover 4X4

Sleeping accommodation is provided by an upturned boat that's mounted onto the roof of the classic Land Rover 4X4

Sleeping accommodation is provided by an upturned boat that’s mounted onto the roof of the classic Land Rover 4X4

The 4X4 has recently been completely restored and is estimated to sell for between £25,000 to 35,000 when the hammer drops in a matter of weeks

The 4X4 has recently been completely restored and is estimated to sell for between £25,000 to 35,000 when the hammer drops in a matter of weeks

The 4X4 has recently been completely restored and is estimated to sell for between £25,000 to 35,000 when the hammer drops in a matter of weeks

Ancillaries include a shower and basin that appear from another hidden fold-out panel on the right-hand-side of the vehicle

Ancillaries include a shower and basin that appear from another hidden fold-out panel on the right-hand-side of the vehicle

Ancillaries include a shower and basin that appear from another hidden fold-out panel on the right-hand-side of the vehicle

The 4X4 has been fully restored after it was used in the chef's 1990s series 'A Cook on the Wild Side', as Hugh's transport in which he toured the British countryside in search of wild ingredients

The 4X4 has been fully restored after it was used in the chef's 1990s series 'A Cook on the Wild Side', as Hugh's transport in which he toured the British countryside in search of wild ingredients

The 4X4 has been fully restored after it was used in the chef’s 1990s series ‘A Cook on the Wild Side’, as Hugh’s transport in which he toured the British countryside in search of wild ingredients

Inside, there’s even a vintage ice cream maker. 

Another extra special feature is Hugh’s signature on the bulkhead.

Following 25 years in the wilderness, the Gastrowagon was completely rebuilt and refurbished to its original fully-functioning specification, by classic Land Rover specialists John Brown 4X4, and is said to run and drive ‘like new’.

Rob Hubbard, Head of Bonhams MPH, said: ‘Land Rovers are always popular at MPH sales and we are pleased to offer this true one-off which would be perfect for anyone wanting to take a post-lockdown staycation.’ 

Additional table tops stored inside the Land Rover can also be attached to create a huge outdoor cooking space

Additional table tops stored inside the Land Rover can also be attached to create a huge outdoor cooking space

Additional table tops stored inside the Land Rover can also be attached to create a huge outdoor cooking space

Following 25 years in the wilderness, the Gastrowagon was completely rebuilt and refurbished to its original fully-functioning specification, by classic Land Rover specialists John Brown 4X4, and is said to run and drive 'like new'

Following 25 years in the wilderness, the Gastrowagon was completely rebuilt and refurbished to its original fully-functioning specification, by classic Land Rover specialists John Brown 4X4, and is said to run and drive 'like new'

Following 25 years in the wilderness, the Gastrowagon was completely rebuilt and refurbished to its original fully-functioning specification, by classic Land Rover specialists John Brown 4X4, and is said to run and drive ‘like new’

The wooden rear door panels also have carrying facilities for a gas tank to power the hobs and a Jerry Can

The wooden rear door panels also have carrying facilities for a gas tank to power the hobs and a Jerry Can

The wooden rear door panels also have carrying facilities for a gas tank to power the hobs and a Jerry Can

CARS & MOTORING: ON TEST

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Regular saver accounts: HSBC and First Direct slash rates again

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HSBC has once again chopped the rate on its popular regular saver account available to current account customers.  

The bank and its offshoot First Direct have cut the rate from 2.75 per cent to 1 per cent. Up until last October, they paid 5 per cent, while as recently as 2016, First Direct offered 6 per cent.

With HSBC, savers can put in between £25 to £250 a month, while at First Direct it is £300. It is likely to have proven a popular home for those Britons who have been able to squirrel more money in the pandemic. 

On the maximum £3,600 allowance for First Direct customers, it works out as a cut in interest from £99 a year to £36. For HSBC customers on the full £3,000, they will be paid £30, down from £82.50.

HSBC and First Direct customers will lose as much as £63 a year in interest after the cuts were brought in

HSBC and First Direct customers will lose as much as £63 a year in interest after the cuts were brought in

HSBC and First Direct customers will lose as much as £63 a year in interest after the cuts were brought in

HSBC snuck out the change, which came into effect at midnight, unannounced on the same day heavy cuts from Treasury-backed National Savings & Investments affecting 25million savers came into effect.

However, some customers were possibly prepared for the news, after they were sent paperwork last week dated 24 November telling them the interest rate was 1 per cent.

HSBC last week refused to confirm whether the cut to its regular saver was coming, with customers told it was a ‘technical error’. 

Both it and First Direct failed to respond to This is Money yesterday when asked whether there would be a cut meaning we couldn’t alert readers beforehand for them to get in before it closed its doors.  

M&S Bank, another managed by HSBC, took its regular saver paying the same interest rate off-sale on 12 November.

HSBC and First Direct customers who got in before midnight last night will still receive 2.75 per cent, but everyone who applies from now on will get the lower rate. 

Those who already have the account will be unaffected until the 12 months is up.

It is a blow to savers suffering from rock bottom rates as these regular savings accounts, which lock customers’ money away for a fixed period in return for a greater payoff, are some of the last decent rates available from Britain’s biggest high street names. 

HSBC cut its basic easy-access account to just 0.01 per cent earlier this year.

The cap on how much can be saved each month and the fact money can’t be accessed straightaway also means they are often described as a good option for people trying to get into the savings habit, with the best rates often only available to banks’ current account customers.

The best account available to everyone is offered by Coventry Building Society

It pays 1.55 per cent and doesn’t require a minimum deposit each month, with savers able to put away up to £500.

A raft of other providers have cut rates on these accounts in recent years, or have scrapped them altogether.  

The account with Britain’s second biggest mutual can be opened online, by post or over the phone and savers would earn around £93 in interest after the 12-month term if they stashed away the full £6,000 allowed by the account.

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This post first appeared on dailymail.co.uk

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