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Independent retailers respond to the new retail landscape – with face masks at the ready

Tom Bottomley
11 August 2020

Last week it was reported that in England, where the mandatory wearing of face coverings or face masks in shops came into force on 24 July, footfall increased by just +2.5% compared to +4% in the other nations of the UK.

In the three weeks since it became compulsory for customers to wear face masks in shops, independents give their views to on how it’s been received, how trading has been and other issues they are facing during the continuing coronavirus pandemic that looks set to change the retail landscape for the foreseeable future.

Martin Schneider

Martin Schneider, owner, Accent, Leeds

Trading has been alright. The wearing of face masks hasn’t really made any difference. People are generally being really good about it and are coming in already wearing masks. We had two guys come in – one with a mask on and one without. The one without asked if it was okay for him to come in, and we said he could so long as he was aware if someone from the council came in and took a picture of him then he’d get a fine. So, it was a case of it being up to him. We’ve all got our masks on.

Footfall is massively down, as Leeds city centre in general is pretty dead, but when people do come in, they are buying. It’s not like it should be, and I think retail is going to change hugely – even after this pandemic. We’ve just got to try to make sure that we are still here.

During lockdown our online business was really good, but that’s gone backwards since all the shops re-opened again. Also, everybody is smashing Sales out online and if you’re not cheap, you’re not selling.

When we got locked down, we’d just got all our deliveries in and we were panicking, so we went straight in to Sale online – offering 25-30% off - and we were really busy. Our website was taking five times more than it normally does. We weren’t making any margin, but we had to clear stock. Everybody was doing it, so if you didn’t then you weren’t going to sell anything.

We’ve still been selling denim really well. Replay is always our best-selling denim brand as we’re known for it and we’ve been selling it for 30-odd years. We’ve got the Replay Hyperflex jean that always sells very well for us. CP Company and Belstaff have also been performing well, especially when we you knock some money off them! In fact, everything has been okay – we’re just not making any margin.

Moschino delivered our kids order in the week of lockdown, and our stockroom guy had already gone off sick because he thought he might have coronavirus. The delivery didn’t therefore get processed and we then had lockdown for three months. We had no staff in apart from myself, my son and my daughter – just handling the business coming in from the website. We were bang up against it every day – wrapping and packing. So, the Moschino stuff never got put up online until just before we opened up again, and now they want to deliver the winter order in a couple of weeks time!

Jason Ody

Jason Ody, owner, Le Monde, Wolverhampton

Since the wearing of face masks became compulsory business took a bit of a duck. Footfall was noticeably down from the week before that was brought in. The people who are coming in are wearing them, and we have some masks to give out if they haven’t got one, but there just seems to be less people about. I think making people wear masks almost puts that fear factor back in to it, even if they are for protection for yourself and others. If we had been wearing them all along, then we would all have been used to them.

We’re wearing them in the shop, though they are hard to get used to and uncomfortable to wear over long periods – especially during the hot weather, but you can’t ask for the customers to wear them when you’re not. If no customers are in, obviously you pull the mask down. The thing is with the masks is you can’t tell what people are saying or see their reactions, or whether they’re smiling or frowning!

Since re-opening on 15 June trading has been mixed. The first week was very good, as there seemed to be a bit of pent up spending power and a bit of cash knocking around. Then it steadied out in the second week and it’s been okay – up until recently when it’s been quieter. I don’t know if that’s to do with the face masks or not. But, I’ll take what we’ve been given to be honest, as every day is the unknown. There’s certainly a lack of consumer confidence and people are worried. If they’re not worried about the virus, they’re worried about their jobs.

The other thing is, will people bother going on holiday now? It seemed to be gearing up a little bit, and we were having people in buying summer product to go on holiday with, but the situation with travelling to and from certain countries seems to be changing on a weekly basis, so we’ll have to see how that all pans out with quarantine periods no doubt putting people off.

We’ve not got an online business, we’re purely bricks and mortar, so we took a massive hit being shut for three months. We have two stores, but we only re-opened the main shop in Wolverhampton city centre, with the other store in the suburb of Tettenhall remaining closed. We may re-open it as a Sale store for a short period, but we’re not going to re-open it again as permanent store. In light of coronavirus, it just felt right to consolidate the business. It feels as if we’re swimming against the tide as it is.

The industry is changing, and Flannels is mopping everything up. They’re coming to Wolverhampton in early 2021 and we do crossover on some brands, but I’m not going to try compete with those guys. This will be our last season with Stone Island – they’ve taken it off us, saying that our adjacencies and brand mix wasn’t where they wanted to be, though it’s strange that Flannels announced that it was opening a couple of weeks after I was told that!

David Finlay

David Finlay, co-owner, Elements, Norwich

The mandatory wearing of face masks has been absolutely fine, aside from one group of lads who came in who, shall we say, may live in houses with wheels on! They were just messing around and wouldn’t put masks on, with one saying he didn’t have to because he had asthma. I had to tell them to leave in the end. They are the only people who have kicked off about masks. In general, most people have been really well behaved and are coming in with face masks on. We’ve got a hand sanitiser station at the front of the shop with signs up, and a pack of masks if people need to take one. Norwich is a pleasant place and people are quite accepting of things and tolerant. We’ve also had really low rates of coronavirus infection in Norwich.

We’re not wearing masks in the shop ourselves. It’s a bit of an odd one, because we don’t have to as members of staff. I do have one part-time member of staff who’s reluctant to come in, so he probably will wear one when he covers for my day off.

Business has got a little bit quieter recently, but the initial four weeks of re-opening were really good, and we were very pleased. We re-opened on 15 June and, though there wasn’t many people around, those that were around were spending.

We haven’t got an awful lot of new stock in, and we went straight in to summer Sale. We’ve found that a couple of our suppliers are holding stock for them to retail themselves – putting a temporary pause on their wholesale accounts, which has been a bit frustrating. But you can understand it to a degree as, if they are having some supply issues this year, then it makes more sense to sell their stock at full-price on their own websites and bide their time. For instance, Pretty Green are saying there won’t now be any AW20 deliveries - or Q1 deliveries for next year, but they will re-open wholesale accounts from Q2.

We’re located in a little area which we call the Norwich lanes, a bit like the Brighton lanes. There’s us, Philip Browne, Dogfish and Seven Wolves – so there’s a good independent scene here. We can be flexible in terms of opening, closing and cutting staff numbers by one or two – or having them come in and out when needed. I genuinely think we will be okay through this.

We’ve got an ecommerce website, as well as an eBay store and an Amazon store for clearance stock. Our website performed pretty much the same during the lockdown as it had been. A lot of people said their online sales boomed but, for us, it’s a secondary business to the shop. We ticked over, and we were coming in every other day to fulfil orders.

Ella Wells

Ella Wells, owner, Our Daily Edit, Brighton

As a team, we’ve been wearing masks in store since we re-opened in the week following 15 June. When the government announced that the wearing of face masks would be mandatory, we actually started asking people to wear them the day after the announcement – rather than waiting the two weeks notice. Most people have been compliant. We have some disposable ones that we’re handing out if people don’t have their own, but since it’s been mandatory most people do tend to have their own.

We’ve had few people who aren’t that keen to wear a mask, and they just tend to leave. One man got a little bit aggressive, but generally most people have been pretty good about it.

We’ve actually been selling masks from two small independent brands, and they’ve been flying out. One of them is an exclusive to us, called Me & My Bloomers, and we’ve got a waiting list of about 80 people for them. They are naturally dyed linen face masks which are £15 each. The woman behind it is actually a florist, but she started making masks. The other brand is called Made by Celeste, and those masks are made from a double thickness calico fabric with embroidery on them. They are two for £15. Every time we get them in, they sell out within a day, so we’re constantly waiting for new stock to come in and we’ve got a waiting list so we can email people when they come back in. We’re also wearing those masks ourselves in store.

Brighton is very busy. There are lots of people around and it doesn’t really feel like there’s a pandemic going on. Business has been pretty good and the people who are coming in to town are wanting to shop. We’ve got a good online store so I’d say we were okay during lockdown as well.

We’ve been doing quite well with accessories and lifestyle products at the moment, and we do have a Sale on so that’s going down well. We actually re-opened with our Sale from the off, as we’d already been doing various promotions during lockdown.

We’re also offering personal shopping, with a one-on-one service before we open. That’s been well received. We’re doing okay considering everything.

If anything is tried on and not purchased then we quarantine it for 48 hours, which is hard as often we only have one or two of each size. So, we are missing out on certain sales, but if we didn’t let people try on things then we wouldn’t sell anything in the store, though our online business has been performing well even since we re-opened – so that’s been encouraging. Our best-selling womenswear brand is probably Ganni, and our best-selling menswear brand at the moment is Portuguese Flannel.

Looking ahead to AW20, what we’re maybe slightly more worried about is once the furlough scheme ends and whether that will have a big hit on the economy and people’s spending power. We’re just going to have to see how it goes.

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