Wearside’s high streets have been tipped to bounce back by experts who have helped steer them through the Covid-19 crisis, during the very first Wear Business Leaders Online Q&A.
The pandemic has put unprecedented pressure on hundreds of shops and businesses in the North-East which have been forced to close their premises.
But retail expert Graham Soult, CEO of Canny Insights, and Sharon Appleby, head of business operations for Sunderland BID, say they have been heartened by the determination and resourcefulness of traders.
They were talking to Martin Walker, co-publisher of Wear Business, during the inaugural Wear Business Leaders Online Q&A this week.
Graham said: “In terms of the high street the biggest challenge is navigating the re-opening of businesses next week and through mid-June but I think most of them are quite well-prepared.
“In a way, the likes of the supermarkets have been trail-blazers for them over the past few months.
“We have seen how they have been dealing with ‘the new normal’ and things like cleansing and queuing and not having so many people in the store and I think that has been really helpful as a guide.
“I think retailers have been able to see what measures can be taken and have learned those lessons.
“What we have seen over the last few weeks with businesses hit by this development is lots of creativity, lots of positivity, lots of good humour.
“A lot of people have been doing the right thing and being seen to do the right thing and I think all those things stand us in good stead for the reopening.
“People are going to remember the companies and businesses that have been kind and helpful during this time and the North East has lots of businesses that fall into that category.”
Sharon pointed out that there was an increasingly powerful ‘feel-good’ factor in Sunderland just before the health crisis hit and she believes it will not be long before that vibe returns.
“I think Sunderland was in a good place before all this happened,” she said.
“We had announcements like the L&G development on the former Vaux site, the BEAM being full, so it was a very exciting time.
“It was becoming a more and more interesting proposition for investment and we will return to that in the months ahead.
“We will remain ambitious, if not more ambitious and will move forward with the vision we have for investment and regeneration.
“Yes, I think things will change and there will be adapting but I think the level of ambition will remain the same and will not stop.
“There will definitely be opportunities coming out of this and we need to make sure we make the most of that and from a Sunderland point of view, that we make Sunderland city centre as attractive as possible not just for the consumers but for new businesses to set up and push that regeneration forward.”
Hopes of achieving that goal have been boosted by the inventiveness of some of clothes firms expected to be hardest hit by the pandemic.
“I’ll give you two examples”, said Sharon, whose organisation helps look after more than 800 city-centre businesses.
“We have a ladies clothing shop in the BID which opened up just a few months before all this happened and had been doing really well but then Covid happened.
“Incredibly challenging for them, but they have moved their business entirely onto Facebook, holding Facebook Live demonstrations every day and the number of customers has just grown really quickly.
“All that has been amazing and they would not have thought they’d have done anything like this a few months ago.
“Now I expect them to come back and do both – online and on the high street – so well done to them for being really innovative.”
“Another one, is a babywear business, more than 50 years old, in Jacky White’s market which has never traded online before this but the owner’s 19-year-old granddaughter set up a website for her, an e-commerce site, and she is now getting business from all over the world.
“So they’re thinking, why didn’t I do this before?”
Similarly, Graham reflected: “I work with a lot of businesses in Chester-le-Street and I’ve been really heartened by the positivity of so many.
“It is easy to forget how scary it was in March when all this first happened and I’ve been really impressed by the way so many of them have adapted in terms of communicating and selling in different ways.
“For example, I shared a post by a cafe in Chester-le-Street selling home delivery afternoon tea and it is getting fantastic feedback.
“That’s a great example of how business is turning a negative into a positive and really getting to grips with Facebook in a way it hadn’t done before.
“This is a weird time for so many people and businesses but they have adapted so well in so many ways.”
The two business leaders were speaking on the first Wear Business Leaders’ video conference, hosted by Wear Business. The weekly interview, on topics of the day, is set to become a regular feature of Wear Business’s online service.
Both acknowledged that there could not have been more testing times of business resilience that those endured over the past few months.
Graham said: “I get to work with a lot of businesses around the North-East but also, as vice-chairman of Durham Business Group, I’ve witnessed first-hand what it is like to have a whole series of face-to-face meetings forced into postponement.
“We’ve all had to adapt that and then in a bigger and broader context there’s the issue of so many businesses on the high street in the likes of Durham and Chester-le-Street which have not been able to open their doors.
“But they understand what customers are prepared to go through in recent months and all that is good.
“Equally as important though is that businesses have to encourage people back by communicating with them.
“The number one thing is to get over to customers the fact that they can be reassured that it will be as safe and as stress-free as it is possible to be.
“It is only once that we manage that, that people will be encouraged back on to the high street after this period of closure.
Sharon said: “Our biggest challenge has been how to stay connected with the businesses that we work with.
“Many have them have been shut, a few of them still trade, many have wanted to have communications with us, some of them haven’t.
“But we have been working really hard across as many channels as possible to make sure that businesses get the vital information that has been coming out from the government.
“In the early days, it was about how do we make sure everyone is accessing the grants that are coming, how are they accessing the finance packages and some of, actually, was just for them to have someone to talk to.
“No-one has ever been in this position before, so how best can we serve the needs facing them?”
As shops. stores and businesses re-open though across the country, Sharon sees improvement on a daily basis and is determined that Sunderland BID will do its bit for the city centre.
“Sunderland is getting busier every single day at the moment even though there’s not that many businesses open right now,” she said.
“People are starting to come back.
“I think we’ll see, once the office-based businesses start to return that it will get busier again.
“So we need to absolutely make sure the city centre looks safe, feel safe, that people are comfortable coming back.
“People’s staff also need to have confidence because we need to view them as consumers too and we have had conversations about making people safe.
“From Sunderland BID’s point of view, we need to get outside in the streets managed with cleansing and with queues because that could be quite chaotic.
“We are looking at some real, practical things at the moment, certainly within the next three or four weeks with businesses working together to avoid potential problems.
“We also need to help businesses harness the opportunities that are there – to look at learning from what they’ve done trading through this period, taking advantage of both of online and of bricks and mortars.”