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As I packed boxes during the last set of non-essential closures, I observed the would-be customers strolling through Tavistock, looking through the window at the designs I had painted on to the glass. Some smiled and waved, others passed by. But, although closed, I felt part of a community - a small brick in the local business structure.
More than ever, I believe, that the importance of a shop made of bricks and mortar has been proved by COVID-19. The troubles of the high street were well-documented long before a global pandemic appeared on the scene – it seemed that every month a new established high street mainstay would be making headlines because of financial difficulties. But in the carefully curated independent shops, we crafted our existence and although hard - things were going well.
Then the pandemic struck and the first lockdown forced retailers to reassess the way their customers could access them. Some smaller independent shops had to start from the beginning to establish themselves online. Others like us were already online but needed to work hard to get everything onto the website as well as offering click and collect.
However, although that helped us to survive, the times in-between the lockdowns has demonstrated that there is still a real appetite to ‘touch and feel’ in a shop. I think that the pandemic has made people reflect on their purchasing decisions and we’re so lucky that our residents have a strong sense of community and love to support local businesses, as it has been vital to us surviving this pandemic.
By championing local suppliers, independent retailers like ours effectively build bridges between business communities and customer communities. We get to recommend and sell the things we love from makers both locally and across the UK. It’s that combination of passion and expertise that can make shopping local so magical.
The interaction of the customers is really one of the many reasons we do it. To be able to find someone the perfect gift for their loved one, to chat to people that regularly visit, to be a part of a local retail community with all its highs and lows. That’s why implementing solutions to reduce the risk of transmission between us and our customers has felt so alien - and even worse to do it whilst still attempting to preserve the social component of customer service. We are divided from them by plastic walls separating the cash register from them. Our smiles are covered by masks. The numbers in our shops are reduced to only a few at a time. But still - above all, when we are open, they keep coming and showing their support.
Contactless shopping and payments have become mainstream with the majority of people that may have previously paid in cash, now converting. It makes it easy for people to pay quickly - but still they hover quickly for a chat - thanking us for being open for them. People even contact us after watching our Facebook live shopping experiences and follow it up with a visit to see the item that caught their eye.
Am I worried for the future of the physical shop? Far less so than I ever was. eCommerce has certainly had to be a key driver of revenue for many small and independent retailers to survive the cost of lockdowns, as well as sanitation and social distancing rules. But our customers keep telling us how much they have missed the real thing.
I know that shoppers are concerned about the outlook for their local high street, fearing a rise in empty shopfronts. But I truly believe that with people increasingly supporting their local area because of their awareness of the impact of Covid-19, businesses like ours that have a strong understanding of the community will be the most likely to recover well and thrive.
We are looking forward to a happy and healthy new 2021.