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From the frontline

Holly Wilson, independent retailer and columnist for Progressive Housewares magazine, is the owner of Prep, Stock Newington and Richard Dare, Primrose Hill in North London and won the Bira Cookshop & Housewares Retailer of the Year at the Excellence in Housewares Awards 2019. She reports on the current unprecedented events having shut her shops temporarily due to the coronavirus pandemic:

Above: Prep Cookshop.
Above: Prep Cookshop.

Well this is a column I never thought I would be writing! I had written a totally different one just over a week ago and it is now totally irrelevant as things are moving at such a pace.

I had just listened to the Budget and was feeling relieved that we were receiving business rates relief but sad for most of my neighbours in Primrose Hill who weren’t covered, but ‘wow’, how much has changed since then!

We all find ourselves in a completely surreal new existence and it is a real challenge to work out how to navigate it both personally and professionally.

Within days of the Budget the situation was getting much more serious and we introduced a whole raft of measures to protect staff and customers – card only, wiping down counters and card machines after each transaction, regularly wiping down doors handles and touch points. And then it moved to only one person in store at a time.

Friday March 20 saw the kids’ schools close so I now have a six and an eight year old at home who need entertaining and educating. As a single mum I’m not going to lie – this is pretty hardcore! There is no tag teaming with your partner while one helps the kids with schoolwork and the other manages to squeeze in an hour’s work or makes a meal. There is no let up! I’m afraid there is going to be serious screen time for all our sanity.

Above: Holly and Fatima (Richard Dare’s manager) at the Excellence in Housewares Awards.
Above: Holly and Fatima (Richard Dare’s manager) at the Excellence in Housewares Awards.

On Saturday March 21 both shops were open but Fatima, Janeta and I made the terribly hard decision to close our doors that afternoon until further notice. This was an impossible decision to make as over the last two weeks sales have been incredible – customers wanted to support us and have been stocking up on all the equipment they will need to cook for themselves during isolation. We started off happy for the boost in trade knowing that the time would come when we probably had to close our doors. As time went on, and we were still busy, basic stock started to run down but I was loath to place new orders as it felt like closures were coming.

All the while it felt wrong that we were still open. People were treating every day like a weekend as they worked from home. Although most were very understanding and touchingly concerned for us, there were customers just browsing the shops and being cross when we were out of stock and asking us to order items in for the following week and not understanding when we said no stock was coming in. Their reality was feeling very different to the reality I was seeing. So we decided the risk was too high. If we stayed open it made customers feel it was ok to be out shopping so the only answer was to take away the choice. I have also stopped online as I can’t ask my staff to go into work and the return is just not worth the risk. There was also the organisation it takes from my end while I’m juggling the kids, so we will be relying on the governments wages assistance.

We have WhatsApp groups for the streets on which I have the shops. We collectively discussed the Government aid as and when it dripped through and we also discussed the morality of staying open when our guts told us to close. And slowly one by one our guts won and we closed our doors unsure as to whether we would get wages cover or business interruption cover but it was the right thing to do. Our community has only gained strength through this.

As I write this I have just watched Boris put us all on ‘lockdown’ so now the remaining shops will close and I believe that’s the only way. The Government is doing what they can to help small business in the most difficult of circumstances but it will never be enough.

Above: Richard Dare.
Above: Richard Dare.

Landlords however have been another matter. My Primrose Hill landlord is a wonderful woman and was immediately happy to discuss some options and we came to a deal where I am not paying my full rent for this quarter – although in hindsight I have paid something and was closed days later so maybe it was not so good! My Prep landlord however had his rent due. I sent an email the week before asking if we could discuss it and got an email back saying he expected it ‘in full in a timely manner’. And should he get any relief he would pass it on – as if anyone is ever going to refund a rent payment! Landlords all over are demanding rent in full. It seems crazy that they can get away with it. Lots of us are withholding until they compromise as they can’t evict us, but I fear I will be punished come rent review time next year. Only time will tell.

So it’s time to put the shops and ourselves into hibernation and hope that this makes a difference and we will come out the other side sooner. Focus on our families and try and teach them fractions and watch an obscene amount of Netflix. Good luck everyone; see you on the other side! X

Top: Holly Wilson with the Bira Cookshop & Housewares Retailer of the Year trophy.

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