Almost every small business was hit when lockdown was imposed back in March. Many responded by temporarily adjusting their operations to ensure they lived to fight another day. David Adams looks at how they did it.
Covid-19 has cast a shadow over the UK economy. According to FSB research, four in 10 small businesses suspended all operations in the first weeks of lockdown.
Some have gone out of business; many have had to make staff redundant. Most have needed to use the support measures provided by central and local government. And most have had to change the way they work.
Many bricks-and-mortar shops, restaurants, pubs, food and drink producers and other manufacturers have effectively become online retailers. FSB research shows that, in the first few weeks of the lockdown, 16 per cent of small businesses launched or enhanced their online presence (including 21 per cent of those that kept operating throughout lockdown).
One in 10 started offering new services (including 15 per cent of those that stayed open); and six per cent (10 per cent of those that stayed open) started selling new products.
Many small businesses have made contributions to local communities, or started to produce equipment to help combat the crisis, underlining their importance to society.
Lockdown has created thousands of stories about small businesses finding a way to keep moving forward, despite the crisis. Here are just a few.
Far From the Madding Crowd, Linlithgow, West Lothian
‘We’ve moved into virtual events, which can only be good for the business’
Far From the Madding Crowd is the sort of independent bookshop every bibliophile would love to have nearby. Jill Pattle bought it in the early noughties and moved it to its current home, a Georgian building on Linlithgow’s High Street. In 2015, her daughter Sally became the manager.
The shop organises or participates in a range of events each year, including readings by authors and school festivals. Some author events are continuing virtually, but all the usual events have been cancelled.
Sally tried to keep working through lockdown while the shop’s two part-time staff were furloughed, but had to close in early April when the stock distributor suspended operations. Only when it restarted in late April could Sally get back to work and pay for a new website.
For a while she was posting and delivering books, and enabling collections from the shop door. She and Jill also rearranged and redecorated the interior in preparation for June 29’s socially distanced reopening. By late July, the shop was open Tuesday to Saturday, on reduced hours.
“Some good things have come out of lockdown,” says Sally. “We’ve got the new website. More people are connecting with us through email or social media. We’ve built up a lot of goodwill. But if we had another lockdown I think we could last a month,” she says.
“The weeks the shop was closed, I was taking in a week what I usually take in a day.
“If we go into another lockdown my worry is that customers won’t come back,” she adds. “We would lose people who are out for the day. If they don’t feel safe, they won’t come.
“But we’ve got a great shop, we sell a quality product, and we are now doing that online too. We’ve moved into virtual events. That can only be good for the business.”
Muncaster Castle, Cumbria
‘We’re now starting to take on some seasonal staff who we would have taken on in March’
Muncaster Castle in the Lake District is a little off the beaten track, but has plenty to offer visitors: the reputedly haunted historic house, beautiful gardens and grounds, a birds-of-prey centre, and regular live events including outdoor theatre.
The castle also hosts weddings and corporate events, while sister businesses offer self-catering, hotel and inn accommodation. The castle employs about 60 people all year round, but that figure usually doubles during the summer.
“The tourist business is feast and famine – and this year the feast was taken away from us,” says Peter Frost-Pennington, whose family owns and runs the business. The family was deeply frustrated to have to keep the castle closed over Easter and both of the May Bank Holiday weekends.
During May the grounds were reopened; during June and July different parts of the castle also reopened, and staff were brought back from furlough.
“We’re now starting to take on some seasonal staff who we would have taken on in March,” says Peter. “So it’s been a gradual step back, day by day.
“We’ve lost overseas visitors for this year, but we might have more domestic visitors. Let’s hope we can make money during the rest of this year, and we might get through the winter. We’ve lost three months of income and that’s going to be hard to make up. We won’t know where we are until 2022.”
Mindblox, Inverurie, Aberdeenshire
‘I am now seeing 25 per cent more clients. I can see clients back-to-back online’
Tess Day has worked as a life coach since 2009. Since 2016 her business has been called Mindblox, and she is based in Inverurie, near Aberdeen.
At the start of 2020 her aim was to focus on the small business market, developing services to help individuals, teams, managers and entrepreneurs. She had just started to rent some shared office space, but much of her time was spent travelling to meet clients and network. Lockdown forced her to cancel face-to-face workshops and work entirely online.
“Pre-lockdown I was always dashing from one client to another and between my home and the office,” she says. “I was seeing maybe three clients per day, while having to meet the costs of parking, fuel, coffees and teas.
“I would say I am now seeing 25 per cent more clients. I can see clients back-to-back online. I don’t want to work more hours, but I can be flexible. I can run some sessions now at 7am online, which helps some people with busy schedules. I can also offer evening sessions.
“I’ve been able to speak to whole teams online on Zoom, delivering a motivational talk, or opening up the floor to discuss how people are getting on working from home,” she says. “We’ve had sessions where individuals have talked about problems they’re having and then I’ve had feedback where the manager has said ‘I had no clue that person was suffering’.”
In future, she says, she will continue to deliver many sessions online and won’t return to her rented office, but she is keen to do more face-to-face work again.
“I want to start doing more group work: going to a hotel and running a two-day seminar, or doing workshops where we bring people together,” she says. “I do want to go out there and work – but not like I was before.”
Oakley Fayre, Downpatrick, County Down
‘It gave me time to reflect and clear my head and come back to the business with fresh eyes’
Café and delicatessen Oakley Fayre was founded by Brendan and Delores Kearney in the late 1970s. Their son Darren is now the on-site manager, although Brendan is still actively involved in administration, finance and HR. Before lockdown forced its temporary closure in March, the business employed 17 people, including seven weekend staff, many of whom were students. The latter were laid off when lockdown began, and the others furloughed.
Darren says the first three weeks of lockdown were the most difficult, as the Kearneys tried to work out how the business would survive. But he loved being able to spend more time with his family. “That was a gift,” he says. “It also gave me time to reflect and clear my head and come back to the business with fresh eyes.”
In May, the business started running a delivery/click and collect service, taking orders over telephone, email, Facebook and Instagram for products including picnic boxes, pizza kits and pre-prepared cheese and charcuterie boards.
In June the business was able to reopen the café, and Darren has brought the furloughed employees back. “I’ve had to lose more than half of my tables because of social distancing, so my turnover is down by about 70 per cent in the coffee lounge, but we’re making enough to get by,” says Darren.
He says the revelation during lockdown has been social media, largely Facebook and Instagram, as a source of customers. “All my footfall is coming from social media,” he says.
“I think this is the new norm. But this year will be a write-off. There are going to be no big changes until next year, when people are really starting to get back to normal and we start building it back to what it was before. For now, we’re making it work as best we can for our customers and our staff.”
Niavac, Castlereagh, Belfast
‘We will come out of it and may even be stronger for the experience’
Niavac was founded in Belfast in 1956 as an overhead projector company, and has evolved during the past 30 years into a high-end audio-visual (AV) systems specialist. Its 20 employees are split between the integration/installation side of the business, which installs equipment for private and public sector clients, and the events side, which provides AV equipment and services to conferences, exhibitions, touring musical events and major sporting events.
“We had some prestigious events lined up for this year, including the Irish Open Golf championship,” says Managing Director James Conlon. “Then all of it was cancelled overnight. That was quite traumatic. Everybody was worried. But I work with some fantastic people. They were immediately working out how we might reinvent ourselves. We came up with the idea of a virtual studio.”
The studio, built in one of the company’s showrooms, lets clients stage virtual events by combining video and streaming technologies with videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams. The studio space itself is a completely Covid-safe environment, with wall-sized LED displays that allow clients to choose their own backdrops.
“We may be bringing in 40 or 50 people at a time, via Zoom or Teams, interacting with the people in the studio,” says Mr Conlon.
“We now have a good order book and we’re working with some prestigious events.” In recent weeks these have included the New York – New Belfast conference and the BelTech 2020 technology conference.
Niavac is also fielding a growing number of enquiries from businesses seeking to make more use of advanced videoconferencing and AV technologies in a corporate future where many people are likely to work from home more of the time.
“This will not have been a great year, but we will come out of it and may even be stronger for the experience,” he adds.