Wear Business asked local high street leaders and retail businesses what the biggest challenges they were facing as they prepare to reopen post-Covid lockdown.
Liza Johnson, director and programme manager, Discovering Durham CIC
“Discovering Durham is a new project aimed at self-sustaining support for local producers. Our store front in the Prince Bishop’s shopping arcade in the city centre closed two weeks after it opened.
“The lockdown saw people turn to local shops and suppliers when they lost faith in the large chains. We need to make sure that we continue to push out the message that supporting local businesses is the key to the survival of the high street.
“Before lockdown, the focus of retail was towards experience and encouraging people to spend their pleasure time in towns. Now that must shift into making people feel safe and supported and making sure that we are meeting their everyday needs in a way that ensures their well-being. Our producers have all stayed open and have been selling online but we are itching to get back to seeing our customers again.”
Katie Simpson, director, Pears Boutique, Langley Moor, Durham
“Our business is a very small clothing boutique, so reopening will see us facing many challenges.
“Because our shop is very small, social distancing is going to be one of the biggest problem we have to address as we prepare to reopen the doors to our customers.
“We will only be allowed one customer and one member of staff in the shop at a time and of course that will take away the essence of what we do and why our customers enjoy the experience of shopping with us.
“The social interaction of our community shop will be impossible due to the new regulations and we are not sure whether customers will queue to come in our shop either on a basis of one at a time.”
Stuart Reddish, president, National Federation of Independent Retailers, Mandale Park, Durham
“With high streets deserted over the past few weeks, one of the biggest challenges to retailers reopening will be the unknown and unpredictable footfall.
“While the government has given the go-ahead for shops to reopen, how confident will people be in returning to the high street when they have been able to get their groceries from – or delivered by – their local neighbourhood stores?
“This uncertainty over footfall and frequency of shopping will, in turn, present difficulties in terms of opening hours, and staffing, as well as stock levels and cash flow management. For many consumers, personal safety is likely to be an important consideration when it comes to choosing where to shop and they will want to see social distancing measures in place – something that is not easily achievable in a small store.”
Paul Cowen, owner, Rum Razor Barbershop, Belmont, Durham
“As many people know, when you start a business you’re essentially entering a marriage. Like all marriages they have their ups and downs but commitment is key. You’ll fight for it and walking away just feels wrong.
“I spent a week wrestling with my conscience over closing the shop as the government dragged its heels on support and we closed on Saturday March 21. It was the hardest decision I’ve had to make in five years. I didn’t know if we would open again but I felt a duty of care to my staff, their families and our customers.
“I was quite upset about some back-street barbers still operating and felt let down by my own industry. The playing field didn’t feel level and I worried about losing clients who wouldn’t wait for us to reopen.
“Now we’ve had the decision to open taken away from us, it’s all about planning. Barbershops are basic and there isn’t a way of operating round lockdown legally.
“I recently joined a Zoom meeting with an Australian barber who endorses us, started making small changes that made massive ripples and helped other local businesses, checked in on clients’ well-being, urged them to stay safe and positive and just found a way to keep Rum Razor in people’s lives without opening the doors.
“We have now planned on refreshing the shop’s image, we’ve worked on customer service plans, researched PPE and how we can keep everyone safe. The day can’t come quick enough to reopen. And it has fallen perfectly – July 4 – our very own Independence Day.”
Andy Bradley, centre director, The Bridges, Sunderland
“As we approach the day when shopping centres are going to be fully reinstated, we have ensured that we have put in place all the necessary measures -with visible signage, one way system, hand sanitising stations and markers outside of retail units highlighting the two metres gap.
“These measures – which are being replicated across the city – are not the challenge, however; it’s how shoppers are going to respond after three months of lockdown. How they will behave is the biggest unknown at present and until we open the doors fully again, we simply won’t know how they will react.
“We have to hope that we show the very British behaviour of being prepared to queue and to be disciplined, so that we can shop again on our high streets and not force the local authority or shopping centre managers to put tougher controls in place.”
Jim Watson, managing director, Drain Doctor North East, Durham and Newcastle
“We were able to continue as a frontline service during lockdown and to react to domestic emergencies. However, we are now receiving calls from non-domestic operations and businesses returning to their premises and getting ready to reopen only to find their drain flow compromised due to a lack of frequent water flow over the past couple of months
“To us, every customer is unique and our service is at the heart of everything we do. So the challenge, post-lockdown, is to ensure that as more and more schools, businesses, shopping centres and hotels get in touch, each with their own individual deadline, we continue to offer our support in our usual friendly manner at a time to suit them, without appearing hurried.”
Graeme Hawes, owner Glass & Mirror Solutions, Durham
“We’re desperately looking forward to the day we can safely welcome customers back to our new glass showroom but, of course, the post-coronavirus high street is going to have to look quite a bit different to anything we’ve seen before.
“In our view, some of the biggest challenges for businesses include the initial investment for shop alterations and adapting existing layouts to comply with social distancing. Limiting the number of customers allowed into stores at any one time could require extra staffing to police, which would again mean additional costs for businesses.
“We’ve seen a huge surge in the number of businesses looking to install physical barriers such as sneeze guards to protect staff and customers.
“Of course, the public need to have confidence that they’ll be safe when they shop. Communicating the measures companies have taken to ensure this will be key to getting people back through the doors and getting the high street back in business.”