Britain’s once bustling high streets are now eerily quiet, with all non-essential shops closed and thousands of staff furloughed. Many may never reopen as the lockdown accelerates shifts to online shopping, while others will have to find ways to adapt to a radically different retail world of long-term social distancing rules and nervous customers afraid of catching the virus.
The British Independent Retailers Association warned last week that one fifth of their members might close for good if footfall is low. Yet some of the big non-food retailers such as Homebase and B&Q are starting to reopen stores, and the British Retail Consortium has issued guidance on how non-essential shops could trade while keeping customers and staff safe.
The Observer spoke to five shop owners on one British high street to find out how they are faring and what the future holds for their businesses.
Hairdresser Anne Murray misses her regulars and the small intimacies that are shared during haircuts at her usually busy salon on Ware’s High Street. “People really open up to you,” she says from her home in the Hertfordshire commuter-belt town. “We’re like secondary counsellors.”
Her salon, Mint, has been closed since the lockdown was announced at the end of March. She has been able to furlough the other hairdresser she employs and is planning to use a £10,000 cash grant to pay her bills. But she worries she might be one of the last shops to reopen as hairdressers will struggle to comply with social distancing rules, which are likely to stay in place until at least the end of the year. “When you cut someone’s hair, you are rarely face to face,” she says. “But the physical proximity makes it hard. It is impossible to stay two metres away.”
Murray, 37, would consider wearing PPE if it was made available to shop workers. “I would definitely do that in order to protect other people and myself,” she adds. “But hairdressing is quite a personal service and so it would be very odd.”
However, an extended closure could potentially put the salon at risk. “I can’t think of many businesses that could survive for that long unless they are online,” she says. “It makes me feel sad and anxious. In my household, it is a major source of income. My salon brings in more than my husband’s business.”
She sometimes walks down the High Street during her exercise and wonders how it will look after the coronavirus crisis is over: “It’s eerie and so quiet. I go past the other shops and can’t help thinking which ones will and won’t survive.”
Al Bramley is getting ready for the phone to start ringing with takeaway orders in the Mexican restaurant he launched with his business partner, Brett Cahill-Moreno, in September.
“People tend to do their own stuff at the start of the week and then treat themselves at weekend. There’s a lot of Zoom parties and quizzes and they tend to buy takeaways for those occasions,” he says taking a quick break, while two chefs prep food in the kitchen.
Before the lockdown, the restaurant was packed with diners. Now the tables and chairs are stacked up against the walls. Bramley, 50, and Cahill-Moreno, 47, closed completely for two weeks, with all 10 staff furloughed. But last month they brought back two chefs and two front-of-house staff to provide takeaway meals. “We’ve had to adapt and change the way we do things,” says Bramley.
Last weekend, they had 140 orders and they are hoping to expand beyond Ware. They have even launched an app to speed up ordering: “It went live last week and we’ve had 650 downloads already.”
However, their turnover has halved and they will only be able to keep going if they can secure a long-term rent reduction. “We are going to have to renegotiate our rent with our landlord,” Bramley says. “I haven’t had that conversation yet, but it’s coming.”
Bramley has been thinking hard about how he could lay out the tables in the restaurant to keep diners and staff two metres apart. “We could do about 25 covers inside. And if the sun is shining, we could do another 30 covers outside,” he says. “With the takeaway market and a rent reduction, we could just about survive.”
The tiny Book Nook on Ware’s High Street had not even been open a year before it was forced to shut. The owner Julia Chesterman, 49, had to mark the anniversary with a cup of tea and slice of cake in an empty shop. “I sat down with the bookshop cat and I had a tear in my eye,” she says. “In a year we have become a little community hub and achieved so much.”
Chesterman initially tried delivering books but it wasn’t practical. “I was taking telephone orders and leaving books on people’s doorsteps but to be honest I wasn’t getting enough orders,” she says. In the end she closed completely and furloughed herself.
Even though the shop is quite narrow, Chesterman is confident she could reopen safely. She would probably only need to limit the number of customers on a Saturday morning, when lots of people come in for tea and cake. “We never really get overwhelmed,” she adds.
Chesterman, who used to work for the library service, is not especially worried about reduced footfall. “Bookselling can be quite challenging,” she says. “I’m not in this business to make a massive profit. I just want to do something that I love and be part of the community.”
The estate agent
The last time estate agent Jake Shropshire, 49, was in Ware’s branch of Jonathan Hunt was in March. “I was able to rescue my telephone and computer,” he says.
Since then the usual buying and selling of property has almost ground to a halt. “There’s been no property viewings,” he says. “It has all stopped.”
Shropshire is trying to keep existing house sales on track. “We are nursing along sales as best we can, but 60% of the lawyers we deal with have been furloughed so there are challenges.”
There are buyers stuck in property chains containing vulnerable individuals. “We have one where a person is shielding so everyone else in that chain will have to wait,” says Shropshire.
A few are moving, however. He is giving the keys to the buyers of a derelict Grade II-listed house this weekend. “There is no crossover of people. There is no danger of contamination,” he says. “I’m just going to leave the keys on their doorstep, ring the bell and run off.”
While he can ride out rest of the lockdown, Shropshire has some concerns about reopening. Staff will need to be paid but it will take a while for new houses to be marketed and sold. “Our income is not instantaneous. It’s going to be three months at best before any money comes in,” he says. “That’s going to be the tough part.”
The card shop
Cathy Emmerson, 53, decided to close her card shop the day before Boris Johnson announced a national lockdown. “We closed at the end of Mother’s Day,” she says. “I’ve got four members of staff and I didn’t feel comfortable asking them to come to work.”
It might be difficult to maintain social distancing when the shop eventually reopens as it is not much bigger than a living room. “We deal with people directly. The elderly like us to read cards to them. Staff need to move around the shop too,” she says.
Nonetheless, she is confident she will find a way to comply. “If we have to put up a sign saying ‘two customers only’ we will,” she says. “It’s a card and greetings shop. It only gets busy on Saturday and around occasions.”
She worries more about the market for party products. “I’m hoping people will want balloons to party but how much socialising will we be allowed to do? Some of our business came from people going out for meals and having drinks at parties. But the greetings card side will definitely remain because people like to send a card.”