In the streets of London, the virus is forcing small shops to adapt or close

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In the streets of London, the virus is forcing small shops to adapt or close

By SYLVIA HUI
30 November 2020 GMT


LONDON (AP) – At the end of October, Matthew Jones was enjoying a rare ‘bit of normalcy’ in his London barbershop in a year that was lacking in that regard. He was cutting his hair and laughing with his co-workers – when the news broke that the business was due to close for the second time.

Jones, 43, endured 15 weeks with no income after the three Sharpes barber shops he co-owns were forced to close in the spring as the government imposed restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The stores, including a tiny one in trendy Hackney in east London, had been open for four months when Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered a new lockdown.

“It was a big blow to everyone who works here,” he said. “You are just rebuilding your business, trying to get back to a normal way of life. And then all of a sudden it’s all taken away.

Like much of Europe, the UK has seen a sharp resurgence in COVID-19 infections this fall, and authorities have imposed a second round of severe restrictions. The suffering has been particularly acute in the UK, where more than 57,000 people have died in Europe’s deadliest epidemic and the economy plunged into the worst recession on record.

As small businesses around the world struggle as the virus forces many to shut down altogether while reshaping consumption patterns, many in the UK are facing the double whammy of the pandemic and the economic uncertainty caused by the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union.

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EDITOR’S NOTE – Small businesses around the world are struggling to survive amid the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. Their success will affect not only local economies, but also the fabric of communities. Associated Press reporters tell their stories in the “Small Business Struggles” series.

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Many UK businesses have managed to survive the spring lockdown thanks to generous government assistance, including grants like the 10,000 pounds ($ 13,300) Jones received and a program that pays part of the wages to workers whose employers are in trouble. These measures have helped keep the unemployment rate relatively low at 4.8% – although it has risen and is expected to reach 7.5% next spring.

The latest round of restrictions could be more powerful and come in the crucial weeks ahead of Christmas. Even before the second lockdown was announced, a survey by the UK Bureau for National Statistics showed that one in seven UK businesses said they had “little or no confidence” in the survival of the next three months.

Jones estimates that the pandemic has wiped out 60% of his income this year. With his stores closed, the single dad, who has a 10-year-old daughter, does odd jobs on construction sites – and prays that business will return enough to ease the pain once restrictions are lifted on Dec. 2. The other five barbers who work in his workshops are freelancers, and are also trying to make do.

“It could be really difficult if this continues,” Jones said, as he set up Christmas lights in his empty shop in Hackney’s Broadway Market.

Hackney has experienced regular gentrification over the past two decades. Located in London’s historically gritty East End, the borough was once known as the birthplace of a stretch dubbed the ‘Murder Mile’, but Hackney is now filled with trendy bars and expensive apartments.

The Broadway Market itself is lined with around sixty small shops, cafes and restaurants, and before COVID-19 arrived, the street crowded with locals and tourists coming for the extremely weekend market. popular. Nowadays some stores are doing better than others, but everyone is struggling to adapt.

Jane Howe, who has run Broadway Bookshop since 2005, said weekends were often so busy that her shop would rake in thousands of pounds in sales a day on the back of £ 7.99.

For a store that relies heavily on foot traffic, cycles of coronavirus restrictions have been tough. In June, Howe launched a website for the first time.

Even once its doors reopened, the small space did not allow it to accommodate its usual crowds. Website sales don’t come close to making up for those she lost in person – especially during the crucial Christmas season, when her store typically brings in a third of her annual sales.

“We miss the impulse buying, the ‘darling by the checkout factor’,” she says.

As the store recovered just over half of what it used to be, Howe stopped paying herself and when one of her two employees left she was unable to replace her.

Like Jones, she was able to keep paying the rent thanks to a government grant. She also took out a state loan of 50,000 pounds.

“What we’re doing, which is our best, I think it’s working right now,” she said.

Others did not fare as well. A much-loved bakery next to Sharpes that was part of a 66-year-old family chain that was shut down for good, Jones said.

Percy Ingle blamed the closure of his 48 bakeries on many factors that predated the pandemic, including rising rents and wages and the likelihood that the low-margin business would not deliver a good return on the necessary capital investments. Like many businesses, even those that were allowed to remain open, it closed for several weeks in the spring before reopening with security measures.

The closure of the bakery contrasts with a trend seen across much of the street, where butchers, fishmongers, grocers and grocers have performed relatively well thanks to a resurgence of interest from relatively well-off residents who are now working from home and doing more shopping in the country. district.

The popular coffee and roast Climpsons struggled to adjust at first – the cafe was shut down, the wholesale business almost completely wiped out, and 34 of the company’s 42 employees benefited from the government’s leave program in the first weeks of the pandemic, co-owner Danny Dit Davies.

But now, on weekdays, Climpsons often serves more take-out coffees than before the pandemic. This offsets the losses on the wholesale side, which supplied restaurants and offices.

“There’s the success of the suburban community on the main streets, I think, which is that a lot of the big local businesses thrive – much higher sales than even before, if they sell things that people can grab and hold. go home, ”Davies said.

On the street, Grigorios Vaitsas says business at his delicatessen, Olive Island, has not been too bad, even though he has closed his small indoor cafe and Christmas shopping has been canceled.

But Vaitsas and his partner, Paulina, who import their products from Greece, have lost sleep over another threat: Brexit.

The couple are worried about tariffs and bureaucracy if Britain leaves the EU’s economic embrace at the end of the year without a deal in place. That combined with the pandemic makes for a “perfect storm,” Vaitsas said.

“We are holding our breath,” he said.

Vaitsas laughed when asked where he saw himself in six months. He says he “operates week by week”.

Other business owners agree that they don’t have the ability to think too far.

“Most business people kind of canceled this year…. Let’s just keep our heads down, pay our bills, pay the rent and try not to worry, ”Jones said. “And next year is another year, and we can start over.”



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