Claire Christian is a successful businesswoman on the Isle of Man, contributing to the retail offering of high-end affordable fashion, and bespoke womenswear. A long-term veteran of the retail, wholesale, manufacturing and luxury end of the fashion industry such as Burberry, Hardy Amies and Melissa Odabash, Claire returned to the Island seven years ago to establish her brand and independent business. During the Covid 19 Pandemic she has been a crucial conduit for the self-employed, businesses and local government, and has been instrumental shaping the government’s support policies.
Think Local, Act Local, Buy Local
This was the message from the Treasury Minister Alf Cannan at yesterday’s briefing: “Your support now for local businesses will help stabilise our economy, it will help maintain jobs and it will create opportunity. Please, I ask, if you are going to spend your money think local, act local and buy local”. And he meant now.
Since Monday I can report that our footfall has been just 25 per cent of what it was in the first week of March this year. Understandably consumers are nervous about venturing out while Covid 19 is in our community. People have only been food shopping for the last eight to nine weeks, and indoctrinated with a message of stay home. But it seems that no matter what local businesses do to show and provide safe environments until our stores become an essential again to someone’s life – and there is a cure for Covid 19- we just won’t be in their minds for a shopping spree.
What would our High Streets look like if we didn’t have the local independent stores? I walked from Castle Street to Duke Street on Tuesday morning, the aftermath of Monday’s nervous reopening. I counted 56 local stores open, of which only five were UK chain stores. A reopening would have been a NON OPENING had 90% of the stores not been local independents. It’s crucial to say our government would not have had the impact of Monday’s store openings had it been the other way around, as the UK chain stores scramble to decide if they will open or not/if it’s safe or not. Why is this important? Reopening brings people back to work, it slowly gets our economy going again.
Over the years independent businesses have been pushed off the High Street. One of last year’s victims was Intersport in Douglas, owned by the Turner family 47 years. As a direct result of this, not one sports store opened in Douglas on Monday. (Albeit, I believe the new chains maybe be opening later this week). We only have ourselves to blame for this lack of foresight. Intersport in Ramsey has still survived, and opened on Monday, because there was no chain competing with it locally. On the other side of the argument however, is that these larger chains bring jobs to the island, this is undisputable. So the point our Treasury Minister is saying and encouraging is, spend your pound locally, in local shops whether they are a chain or not. That supports our local economy as a whole. Listening to Alf on the square radio, as my mum calls it, I felt like Bob Geldolf in 1985 during Band Aid… shouting “Get your money out now”! (And that was one of the more inexplicit demands Bob made).
But we face other challenges as independents, not just that of encouraging customers to venture to shop with us. Local stores are starting to feel the wider effects of Covid 19. Relationships with suppliers are at critical point. Suppliers are going into liquidation, shipping is causing issues, and most are just not open yet; supply chain is going to be a problem. However, being an independent means we can react quicker to customer need. Local stores can adapt to meet new customer requirements, emotions and aspirations. As the pandemic continues to change people’s behaviours, local stores can take critical steps that will enable them to stay closer to their customers’ demands. Importantly, they need to ask how are their customers feeling? What are they thinking, and what are they doing now? What does May bank holiday look like in eased lockdown? What do people need for local staycations? This will help them to identify their market.
Reports that the UK is facing a severe recession, are also at our doorstep. Rishi Sunak reported a huge unemployment surge, the highest level since 1996, and locally we ourselves are looking at our highest surge since, reaching 1,347 in April 2020 – similar to the figure we saw in 2013, which was only 1100 or so. More redundancies could be on the way if we don’t support our jobs and our businesses now.
But there is a small glimmer of hope; help has come from new technology. Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook shops yesterday. Their new concept, available across all of their apps, provides any small business with a platform to start a shop to sell things directly. This will help bring the customer directly to small businesses as they deal with the economic fall out from Covid 19. “Customers can visit someone’s shop, and dive right into that small business’s story, see their products and buy them”.
It’s free and easy to create. On Instagram there’s also going to be a dedicated shopping tab, so people can search for items that they require. This will add up to something quite powerful”, and will not only reach a local market but will reach a global one too.
My local Internet sales have doubled in the last two to three weeks; I never thought I would be saying the biggest emerging market in online sales is a local one! Part of this is because people are still working from home, particularly those from some of the larger offices that remain closed in the various town centres. This is an indicator that customers are thinking local and shopping local, but they are still apprehensive about stepping outside, or they are more remote from local town centres.
Signs are positive, recovery is in progress, my message to you mirrors the Treasury Minister’s comments, please shop local, and act now.