When non-essential shops were ordered to close their doors in March under coronavirus lockdown rules, many businesses feared the financial devastation would mean they would never reopen. Shoppers took to buying goods online but overall sales plummeted. Sectors such as clothing were particularly hard hit, with catastrophic falls of 55 per cent, according to the Office of National Statistics. Thank goodness, then, for the independent retailers across the Stratford district who have weathered the storm and opened their doors to customers in the last week or so. The shopping experience may have changed – some are operating a booking system to maintain social distancing and hygiene rules are in place – but the message is: “We’re back and ready to welcome you.”
Reporter Gill Sutherland and photographer Mark Williamson visit local retailers who are back in business to find out how they have coped with the impact of coronavirus. See this week’s Herald for a focus on more businesses opening up after lockdown.
Heartened by the customers, Home of the Sofa
It could be said that, while Clive and Rachel Swain took a back seat during lockdown, they were always sitting comfortably.
Together, the couple own and run Home of the Sofa in Stratford, selling high-quality, English-made sofas, chairs and other furniture.
They launched in 2011 and even though it was the middle of a recession, they prospered from the start.
“We attracted good customers,” said Rachel. “We offer a personal and knowledgeable service – one of us is always here, so we offer that really personal contact from initial meeting to delivery.”
Clive revealed how they had fared during lockdown: “We’ve always been really well supported by local people and so they recommend us and refer us to others. In the run-up to lockdown, lots of people got their orders in, which was lovely. There was a lot of faith in us: ‘Here’s our deposit, we want to support you.’
“We had about a three-week quiet period; now people have come back and are placing orders.”
The couple are taking a lot of positives from lockdown. Rachel said: “We’ve used our time very wisely. We were desperate to get a new website as our old one didn’t reflect what we were doing, so Clive worked with an IT company on our new website, which is now up and running, and we’re getting a lot more enquiries from further afield.”
The pair were impressed at how the council stepped up to quickly distribute government grants to local businesses. They themselves continued to pay rent and suppliers. “We wanted to look after them,” added Clive.
The mutual support and their own business experience meant the couple were always optimistic about the future: “Even when we started nine years ago, we were confident that we had a good core business. We didn’t know how long we were going to be in lockdown for but we always knew we would have a business to come back to.”
The shop is now open, with hygiene measures and social distancing in place, and has already received a number of sales enquiries.
“I’ve been heartened by the support,” said Clive. “Customers have been going ahead with orders that they thought about before lockdown.
“It will take some time to get back to normal, or the new normal, but from what we’ve seen to date, I think we’ll be absolutely fine.”
Abigail switches to online, Domino
Abigail Edmunds has certainly not been idle during lockdown – in fact, the owner of womenswear boutique Domino has never been busier.
“I’ve really boosted my online activity and have made 249 videos during lockdown. I shot 18 hours of video in my spare bedroom and showcased all the clothes that the shop had, styling up the outfits showing people how to wear them. I also paid influencers to promote me, push my website, basically to get my brand out there.”
Abigail has owned Domino for three years and was manager for 13 years before that. She made four videos a day, including one on Saturday night, where she had cans of cocktails and called the evening Quarantini Time.
She said: “I feel quite proud that I turned the situation around, especially as I have been looking after my three-year-old daughter Artemis at the same time.”
Customers are now snapping up Abigail’s clothes from further afield, with many logging in from London.
She said she was very aware that it might be some time before customers are comfortable with visiting shops in person.
“However, people can book an appointment online and visit us just one-to-one and know it is all safe – we’ve got screens and sanitisers all in place. I’m also happy to work round customers’ needs, for example if they want to visit in the evening.”
Ahead of Monday’s opening, Abigail brought one staff member back from furlough. She said: “Opening was great. It was so nice to see some familiar faces and interact with people, rather than just me and a camera – and my darling three-year-old.”
On top of everything else, Abigail has found time to redecorate the shop.
She added: “It’s been very, very challenging but it’s also challenged me to find that something inside me to make me succeed.”
Buzz means the signs are promising, Linda Rose Lingerie
As lockdown lifts, Judith Hough is hoping more women will be turning their attention to their need for new and exquisite undergarments.
Linda Rose in Alcester sells just such finery and is particularly renowned for its quality bras and expert fitting service.
Judith only bought the business in December and has had to work harder than ever to make it a success.
She said: “When we shut in March it was a bit of a shock. We had just got our summer season and basically we fell off a cliff at a time when business should have been particularly good.”
Judith hadn’t even got her online offering fully operational – although it is now and turning over around £10,000. “It isn’t going to get me out of trouble, but it certainly helps,” she said.
Increase in online buying is continuing, and Judith says she is now seeing out-of-area sales grow. During lockdown she has also taken advantage of all the grant and furlough schemes on offer, which has helped the business to continue.
A working mum, Judith says a major challenge has been running the business while her children – Harry, 15, and Matilda, 12 – have been at home.
She added: “I’m hoping there will be a bit of so called ‘revenge shopping’ – like after lockdown in China, when the Hermes shop did a couple of million pounds’ worth of business in a few hours.
“I am actually optimistic. The signs are promising and I’ve had a lot of interest with people booking appointments. In fact, I’ve been full this week. I think there will be an initial buzz – people need lingerie or they just want to treat themselves. Whether that can be sustained I don’t know.”
The situation is certainly taking an emotional toll: “Now we’re opening, this is the most upset I’ve been throughout the pandemic. I feel like crying, which is weird – it’s just the stress and worry of it.
“Like other retailers, we are nervous about getting the regulations right. The rules seem unfair because I’ve got to do more than some of the bigger shops. Every item that is tried on has to be incubated for 72 hours and will be steamed before going back out. It is tricky to en-force the two-metre rule in a small shop.”
She added: “Ultimately we need to promote Alcester as we have so many lovely retailers. It’s a great place to visit and spend some time in.”
Update your wardrobe by special appointment, Justina and Dice
Fashionable women have been visiting Justina and its sister shop, Dice in Shipston, for a 60 years.
Run by business partners Jane Medd and Jayne Scandrett, the womenswear boutique has opened this week for prebooked appointments.
Jane told the Herald they were relieved to be busy at last: “It’s so good to be open. We’re doing an appointment system for the first couple of weeks but may open generally from next week, with appointments for those that still want them.”
Customers visiting the boutique are welcome to try outfits on and are asked to wear a mask. Afterwards the clothes will be steam-cleaned and set aside for a suitable time before being put back on the rails.
Jane said: “We think it’s really important that they are able to try things on. That’s part of the joy of visiting a boutique – that and the personal service.”
Although lockdown has been tough, Jane says she appreciates the assistance they have received.
“For us, lockdown happened at the worst time – we had just taken delivery of our summer stock and had no chance to sell it.
“We were fortunate to get the bounce-back loan, a small grant, were able to furlough staff and landlords gave us a rent break.”
Now Jane says she is optimistic: “We have a well-established and loyal customer base and we are hoping that they will come back. I also think people will feel more comfortable visiting a village shop rather than, say, going to John Lewis in Birmingham, where it is so much busier.”
She added: “Initially signs are good. People are keen to update their wardrobes to go with their tans from being in the garden with the nice weather. I’m getting positive feedback, and people are so relieved to be out – we’re the first place that many have visited after being in their own homes for ten weeks.”