Battling uncertainty: Small businesses take on the pandemic

Business owners have faced huge challenges in the past year. The first nationwide lockdown caused an almost immediate drop in customers as all non-essential businesses were forced to close. Without any real understanding of how long this would last, owners were left stranded with bills to pay and their livelihoods at stake.

Fast-forward to well over a year later and these businesses have adapted to a whole new climate. The way their customers shop has undoubtedly changed but small businesses are actively recognising this.

For many the pandemic has been a chance to make an impression and valuable lessons have been learnt on what it really takes to run a business.

A gap in the market

Dog and Hat were formed back in 2017 and are a UK Coffee Subscription service. The family business is run from a picturesque farmhouse on the outskirts of York.

Dog and Hat is ran from the family home

They began to see a real growth in sales when the national lockdown hit. Susanna Morgan is the co-founder of the subscription service and says the pandemic allowed her business to grow.

“We started the lockdown with around 100 subscribers, and ended lockdown on 1000 across all our gifts and main subscription services. I think this was actually helped by the closing of the hospitality industry. People began making more coffee at home and our online sales just started to grow.”

“Dog and Hat was always going to be an online business and we just saw sales soar. We also began to see several retail brick and mortar businesses open up online because they weren’t allowed to operate. I hope this is a permanent change because it means those businesses will have an online presence and they will be better placed for future pandemics, should there be any.”

Susanna (on the right) and her colleague outside the the business.

It is clear however that many businesses struggled during the past year. According to a report by Simply Business the total cost to UK small businesses after the pandemic could exceed £69 billion. Approximately 67% of these businesses were forced to stop trading at some point during the pandemic too.

Susanna recognises that other businesses will have struggled. She insists that despite her success, there have been moments of uncertainty for Dog and Hat which have made keeping up with demand difficult.    

“An online sales company like ours succeeds when people are home, but a closed café in a town during lockdown suffers much more. For people in these industries it has got harder.”

Susanna packages all of her products by hand

In our case all the uncertainty lies with deliveries and shipping. During the peak of the pandemic it was always an unknown if a driver would be on their round, if their depot would stay open and if our coffee would make it to us. We just had to take things on a day-by-day basis. It wasn’t easy, but we didn’t have many staff to worry about, and we did not need to worry about opening dates or other deadlines.”

Online businesses are one of the few sectors that may come out of the pandemic stronger. Susanna says that forward planning may protect small businesses moving forward.

“I think we will always plan to keep our business simple, and easy to manage. The more complex the business I imagine the harder it is to manage in a pandemic.”

Online businesses have adapted much faster to the pandemic

Research by Growth Intelligence shows that more than 85,000 businesses in the UK launched online stores in the four months after the first lockdown. Small independent businesses clearly recognised the need to move online to ensure their survival.

Christian Azolan is a Visual Artist who started his business at the start of 2020. When restrictions were first introduced, he decided to pursue a full-time career as an artist. He has spent the last 12 months making agreements and collaborations with resellers, with his art now being sold on Handmade on Amazon and Wayfair UK to name a few.

He says that setting up his business during the pandemic has been challenging and at times very isolating.

“The last year has been full of ups and downs. I had to enter the art market and business through non-traditional means as there were no art fairs, no pop-ups, no face-to-face networking events. There was no way to show my work in the real world so I had to do everything online.”

“The hardest thing has been working by myself and running and building a business day to day. I’m a very sociable person so going from working in a team to working on my own has been a huge transition. Doing everything online can be difficult as you have all meetings and work all day in a virtual environment.”

Despite the difficulties Christian has faced, he says the fact that restrictions forced him to do things differently may have benefitted him long-term.

“There was no way I was going to rent a space without seeing it first. I also think it really depends on what you do as a business and who you rely on. A lot of artists only sell through galleries and since they closed I guess they have had to struggle to make money. If they also had an online platform they would have been able to continue and not really feel the closing of galleries.”

“I’ve been lucky as I started my business during the pandemic, that’s all I know. Now that things are slowly lifting and re-opening and going back to normal, I can now focus more on things like retail, trade shows, networking with galleries and business activities that will feature and showcase my business.”

Business owners have had to get use to working remotely

The ‘new’ normal

For traditional businesses that were already well established, the pandemic has forced them to think on their feet. With precious money and time often invested in retail units these business owners have had a difficult year.

According to the Office of National Statistics, in April 2020 the total retail sales volumes were 19% lower when compared with February levels. Even after non-essential shops were allowed to open, there was a clear decline in footfall.

Floral Expression has been trading at various locations in Leeds since 2005 but can now be found at a premises in Far Headingley. The shop has close ties to the UK industry and tries to buy as many British grown flowers as possible.

The shop front in far Headingley

Alison Ruud is the owner of the business and has been a florist for 23 years. She turned to the profession after falling out of love with her office job and insists on protecting the skills her industry provides. She is also a huge advocate of the high street and the role it plays in local communities.

For a brick-and-mortar store like Floral Expression, the pandemic has forced them to close their doors several times. Without being able to trade from the shop, Alison’s business has been forced to adapt. Alison says that because she deals with flowers and other fresh produce this has been made even more challenging.

“The beginning of the pandemic was a very emotional time. No one really knew what was happening and if the business would be viable when we could eventually re-open. It was such a testing time.”

“The lock down happened right around Mother’s Day and I had thousands of pounds worth of flowers in my shop ready to sell on Mothering Sunday. Fortunately, we were allowed to trade, and we sold them all and shut the very next day. The shop was then emptied of any perishable stock, and we began to allow the enormity of it all to sink in.

“It has been an absolute roller coaster, but the Government grants were a welcome financial help, and the Furlough scheme was an absolute lifeline. Without that my staff may have lost their jobs. As a small business I feel we have had the tools to adapt very quickly to the circumstances. Having a small team has helped as we can be so flexible.”

Alison at the front of her shop

The UK fresh flower and indoor plant market is worth an estimated £2.2 billion according to research by the Flowers and Plants Association. When businesses were allowed to open back up, Alison says this popularity was clear and she received a huge amount of support from her community.

“When we were first allowed to reopen I was on my own and had to make the deliveries myself. The local support was amazing. I suddenly then started to get phone calls from customers further afield and even abroad that couldn’t reach their loved ones but wanted them to know they were thinking of them. Our website went mad with orders.”

“As time has gone on and everything is slowly opening back up that mood has obviously changed. I have gained new customers who have used us and enjoyed the experience but now people’s lives are becoming normal I feel they do not have the time to just stop and think about supporting local. Sadly, it is back to convenience.”

Safety measures can be seen around Floral Expression

Something Alison doesn’t think people are considering is the direct impact the pandemic has had on the industry as a whole. With travel restrictions still in place and it becoming more difficult than ever to travel around the world, the movement of goods has been directly affected.

“I think it has got harder for our industry from the point of view of importing stock into the country. When the pandemic first struck the flower growers in Holland started burning their stock. The photos were so upsetting for everyone in the industry and some growers have even ceased trading since then. Obtaining the variety of flowers we used to have is slowly coming back and most customers are understanding about choice.”

“Weddings were all cancelled and that was extremely hard work having to postpone and reorganise those. All our contract clients disappeared as all offices, restaurants and shops closed overnight.”

“Putting all that side, being a small business that has been able to adapt so quickly, although it has been hard, has made us stronger.”

Alison puts time and effort into her displays

For any business owner, the pandemic will have caused a severe amount of anxiety. Not only are businesses trading in such unfamiliar times but they must ensure that they are doing this safely.

The Health and Safety Executive has provided businesses with a criteria they must now meet, which gives employers an overview of how to make their workplace or business COVID-secure. This includes:

  • Risk Assessment
  • Social Distancing
  • Cleaning, Hygiene and Handwashing
  • Ventilation and air conditioning

Alison insists that although the pandemic has brought with it uncertainty and complexity, she will carry forward what she has learnt.

“I think the uncertainty at first made me really anxious but as time has gone on it has become the new normal for us. As business owners and members of this industry we just adapt and change as we must. Customer’s being allowed in the shop again has caused some anxieties, as not all want to abide by the rules.”

Far Headingley is full of independent shops

“I think the pandemic has allowed us to reflect on how we work. Being able to adapt to situations and changing how we work has made us realise that it is fine to do things differently. For example, if we have to close early or take time out, then it’s okay to do that. If we don’t have a certain flower then the customer will have to choose from what we do have available.”

“Personally it has shown me that we never know what is around the corner and we have to take each situation on its own merit and deal with it.”

If there is one thing that small business owners will take from the past year it is that determination is the key. The small businesses who were just starting out have thrived in this new retail climate because they were determined to grow and have adapted quickly.

Established businesses are still trading because they were determined to survive, with both types of business likely to come out of the pandemic in a much stronger position.