WHEN non-essential shops were ordered to close under lockdown, many businesses feared they might never reopen. As shoppers turned to online stores for their purchases, sales on the high street plummeted alarmingly.
At one stage, the Office of National Statistics reported devastating drops in numbers, with retail sectors such as clothing recording falls in sales of as much as 55 per cent – a threat to the very existence of many shops.
But despite the doom and gloom, many independent businesses have been surprisingly resilient and withstood the onslaught of coronavirus with a confidence envied by some of their bigger counterparts.
In the second part of a special Herald feature on independent stores across the Stratford district, reporter Gill Sutherland and photographer Mark Williamson visit local retailers who are back in business after weathering the storm and reopening their doors to customers.
Zeiss optician’s in Chapel Street must be the coolest place in Stratford.
In a hot, summery week, not only is its cool air-conditioning very welcome, it has also had a very chic makeover.
The family business has been run by the Barke family since 1985 and includes dispensing optician Alan, with Margaret and their son Alex looking after customer service.
The team are delighted to be open after lockdown and have the opportunity to show off their new set-up at last. Alex explained they were actually shut longer than lockdown due to the timing of their building works.
He said: “This year we are celebrating 25 years in Stratford and so we thought we would have a big refit – we closed for that in early March. No sooner had we reopened then we had to close again due to the shutdown.
“The silver lining is that we’ve got to know how the shop works now and have made a few tweaks.”
The new streamlined interior boasts displays of top brand frames, lighting that exudes natural daylight, and a consultation room that boasts a Visufit 1000 – a remarkably clever machine. It takes a 3D scan of each customer and produces an “avatar”-style head, which gives precise measurements for fitting purposes, but also allows you to see what an array of frames would look like on your 3D self.
As an essential service, Zeiss has been able to fix glasses and fit lenses to new frames using a previous prescription but they are now able to resume testing, with the optometrist wearing PPE and customers being given a mask to wear.
Alex said customers were welcome to try on as many frames as they like, all of which are disinfected afterwards – and they have social distancing and other hygiene measures in place.
The business is unique in that it only sells Zeiss lenses. Alex said: “Many opticians do Zeiss lenses but there are very few that only do Zeiss. We are fortunate to have that collaboration and they have worked with us on the branding for the refit.”
Alex is optimistic the business will continue to thrive. He is especially proud to be part of a row of independent businesses which includes Barry the Butcher, Daisy Chain and Music Matters.
He added: “I think with the lockdown, people now want to shop at independents, whether that’s coffee shops, hairdressers or opticians. All of a sudden people are realising what the high street would look like without independents, and where would Stratford be then?”
When the Royal Shakespeare Company needs something expertly cleaned, for decades it has turned to Fountain Cleaners.
The traditional family business, which has been in Stratford for 35 years, is run by Virginia McArdle alongside a loyal team.
Over the years they can recall serving a raft of RSC greats – including Sir Patrick Stewart and Dame Judi Dench. When the latter handed over a signed cheque for services rendered, the team treasured the mega actress’s autograph before financial considerations finally won over and they took it to the bank.
Even without the RSC’s business, as the theatre is still closed, Fountain is seeing a slow rise in demand as customers begin to seek out their expert skills after the long lockdown.
After opening last week, Virginia said: “It’s exciting to be open but also it makes you a little bit anxious, because although we’ve put procedures in place, it’s all new and not yet a habit. It’s easy to chat to people and forget all the rules.
“So it puts you a little bit on edge, and we’re used to being friendly and relaxed, so you feel a bit like you’re not operating normally.”
Virginia said lockdown had not been easy: “It’s been difficult because all my loyal and very wonderful staff are on furlough and are worried about their jobs and when we might get back to normal.
“We’ve also had three months of a shop full of work that we did that hasn’t been collected or paid for, so that’s another worry.
“We’ve been like a wardrobe, looking after people’s things. Hopefully people will now be able to come and visit and collect their items.”
Since reopening, Virginia has noticed a particular demand for laundry work and is hoping they will increasingly be kept busy.
She added: “It’s so tricky at the moment – especially with the road closures in town. We’ll have to see how that affects business in Stratford. I do hope everything continues to improve, especially for all the amazing independents that the area has. I’ve been thinking of them especially at this time.”
It’s like walking into a sweet shop – that’s the verdict of owner Nuha Halaby about going into her Stratford boutique again after lockdown.
There may not be a pear drop or chocolate button in sight, but the ladieswear and accessories shop in Shrieves Walk, off Sheep Street – named after its owner – is back in business.
Nuha opened in 2007, taking over an existing boutique, and specialises in shoes, handbags and clothes from luxury designer brands such as Armani, Paul Smith, Vivienne Westwood, Joseph Ribkoff and Lulu Guinness.
Nuha said: “It is exciting, but I’m also nervous because you can’t tell how it is going to go.
“We have all the hygiene measures in place, with hand santiser and clean pop socks available, which we dispose of. If customers try something on, then we spray it with antibac and do not put it back on the shop floor for 24 hours. We are also cleaning surfaces and the card machine after each use.”
She said the boutique had been busy so far, but not all customers felt comfortable going out in public just yet. As a result, she has revamped her website, offering her products online.
Financially, she admitted lockdown had taken its toll: “We have had to pay our rent and all the suppliers – even though we have had no income, there is no let-up in the bills – so it is great to be open.
“We have very loyal customers both locally and from further afield, like London. The new road system in town doesn’t help – it is a nightmare and puts people off. But we are hopeful that people are in need of a shopping treat after lockdown, and we have some great summer ranges on offer.”
n Latest on the streets: Pages 4-5.