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Independent shops enjoy business boost due to commuting drop | Small business

Independent shops are unlikely to join the government’s push to get workers back to the office, according to the body representing the sector, after enjoying a boost in sales thanks to a drop in commuting.

Andrew Goodacre, chief executive of the British Independent Retailers Association (BIRA), said members in suburban areas and towns had reported positive sales throughout lockdown and beyond as they pick up business that would usually go to those working in the city centre.

He said: “You won’t find us on this call to get people back to the office for many reasons. I think that horse has bolted, and I understand why people are calling for it but people will come back on a more flexible approach … City centres now have to think, with fewer people commuting, what do we do to bring people back in?”

His comments come after the head of the Confederation of British Industry warned that city centres could become “ghost towns” if the prime minister does not do more to encourage workers back to the office.

Goodacre said: “I think at the moment if you are situated in a suburb or small town, or a more local high street, then you are doing better than those in the city centre. The only businesses I would exclude from that are clothing shops, which are struggling generally..”

Goodacre said the level of success depended on the shop, adding that those selling DIY and homeware products were doing better, as were cafes and small grocers or butchers. “I feel sorry for city centres and larger towns struggling with it … but that tends not to be where independent traders find themselves as the rents are higher,” he said.

He said there had been an “appreciation” for local supplies because when a lot of major stores ran out of goods because of stockpiling at the beginning of the pandemic people were able to find items locally. “I discovered it myself and if a large supermarket sold out of pasta, for example, I could get it locally. I kept saying to my wife: ‘We should do this a lot more.’ Spread the spend is what I would advocate.”

One local business that has picked up trade since lockdown is All Seasons DIY in Birmingham, a shop selling tools and other items used in the home and on activities such as gardening.

The owner Surinder Josan said: “We entered the lockdown quite nervous thinking we would have to coast for six months … so we stayed closed for two weeks and spent that time clearing up and tidying up. While we were doing that our lights were on and the doors were closed and people were knocking asking to purchase stuff for repairs, and the phone was ringing.

“Then when the sun was shining, people came more. We put a notice outside saying, ‘Wait outside to be served’, and we were serving people one by one and using PPE. We tried to do the best we could.”

He added that as lockdown has eased customers have started drifting back. “Whereas queues at big stores were horrendous and getting something online would take weeks, customers were coming back to us and we saw customers we had never seen before,” he said.

Another business doing well is the children’s shop the Baker of Small Stuff in Sheffield. Hellen Stirling, the owner, said: “We were lucky because the day we were told to close, we had already got our website set up. I put all my efforts and work into the website which went bonkers in a brilliant way.” She added that there was a feeling in the air to “shop with your local high street and community” which has driven a lot of custom.

Wendy Birch, who runs the coffee shop Sista Barista in Waterloo, has also seen new customers. “Business when lockdown first came was very slow but we stayed open and we were really busy as one of the only cafes open within a three-mile radius. We had people walking down from as far as Camberwell to get a coffee, so for us it was worth while staying open.

“I think we are now known to lots more local residents in the immediate vicinity who would have commuted and got coffee when they got to work. They are now getting coffee as they know we are here, or they are working from home.”

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