Two small business owners on how they’re adapting to life after lockdown

Sally Newall
Photo credit: Getty

From Red Online

Lockdown has been a game-changer for lots of small businesses. Many had to close their physical doors, or completely change how people came to them, in a matter of days. Now things are slowly opening up, and as part of Red's campaign to support those independent enterprises we love, we've caught up with two owners to hear how they are navigating the "new normal", and the positives to come out of the pandemic.

Caroline Van Luthje is the founder of Wild Swans, selling Scandinavian fashion and homeware in two London stores and online.

To make reopening feel special, we’ve repainted inside the shop and put decals on the windows saying ‘Unlocked’ and ‘We’ve Missed You’. There’s a booking system – maximum two customers at a time – and we’ve tried to be creative with our protective gear. I’ve bought luxury hand sanitiser that people will use before putting on white cotton gloves. A local maker has designed a mask for staff, which customers can order too (we also have disposable face masks).

We’re doing Zoom calls for anyone not wanting to come in-store, and there’s a ‘try before you buy’ home-delivery service for locals. We’re about 60% down on takings, which is better than expected, but I know we won’t make anything like we used to in the shop. Before, the website only made up 10% of sales but we’ve increased that.

All staff were furloughed apart from me and my ecommerce manager, and we’ve worked on making the shopping experience memorable. We’ve been sending personal notes and gifts with orders and using UPS for next-day delivery. We’ve also been doing four newsletters a week, and sales. For Instagram, staff took home their favourite pieces to model and we’ve worked with some influencers. Our best seller has been a smock dress probably because it’s stylish but super-comfy!

The increase in online orders has been time-consuming – I’ve been in the shop 8-10 hours a day, six days a week, packing, answering emails on sizing and fit, and negotiating with brands on stock.

I hope brands will make smaller collections that you can buy in-season. They start to deliver autumn/winter collections from July and there’s no space. I’m aiming to be savvier– you always need exciting new pieces, so I’ll have frequent but small orders. We’ll keep up the dialogue with customers on Instagram and through newsletters. Hopefully the more personal experience will encourage them to keep shopping at independent stores.

Naomi Evans runs These Two Hands, selling nature-inspired homeware and gifts by artisan makers at craft markets and online.

I work with 25 UK makers and their designs are made from natural and sustainable materials. The pieces are very tactile – at markets, customers can hold the mugs, smell the soaps and balms and try on jewellery. But those aren’t likely to start up until September (there are no clear regulations for craft markets). Organisers have been doing virtual versions on Facebook and Instagram, I’ve also done tours of my stall on IGTV.

But, it’s hard to replicate the market experience and the volume of sales just isn’t comparable. I also run nature craft workshops but they've stopped too, so I have to concentrate on the website. My biggest challenge now is reaching a wider audience online – without a budget to put behind it. As a self-employed director, I wasn’t eligible for government support. Detailed reviews are so important –the more shoppers can get a sense of an object, the more likely they’ll buy.

I’ve also got to make sure buying through the website is a smooth experience – I'd recently done a shoot so the imagery looks great and people can buy quickly and securely with PayPal. I’ve been sending gifts out directly, with free gift wrap – in tissue, with pressed flowers – and hand-written cards with orders (where I remind them to leave a review!) and a bunch of flowers from my own garden for local deliveries – connecting people with nature is at the core of what I do.

Before this, I was already planning to do fewer markets (as they’re difficult to fit in with our four-year-old daughter), and the plan was to do more workshops, but that’s on hold for now. I need to maintain the website growth I’ve had over the last few months and keep innovating, for example, getting makers to design me exclusives. I’ve been bringing in more money than this time last year, but not as much as I forecast, as I had two festivals lined up, but the fact that we’re in a pandemic and I’m still here and sales are up, is a big positive.

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