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Progress: Three small businesses on the challenges posed by reopening after the coronavirus lockdown

NON-ESSENTIAL shops can open their doors to customers once more on June 15, but what do businesses need to do to get ready? Figures from the British Independent Retailers Association (BIRA) show that 50 per cent of its members plan to reopen then, but that many have concerns. Fewer customers, a resistance to spend, and safety concerns for both staff and shoppers were seen as the biggest challenges. Members also rated government guidance on how shops can open safely at just 6.6 out of ten.

Andrew Goodacre, BIRA’s CEO, (pictured below) said: ‘I am confident that the retailers will ensure that employees and customers are safe. However, there is understandable anxiety regarding business and sales. Reopening is only the beginning of a long journey back to a sustainable retail business.’

The government says businesses must demonstrate that they are ‘Covid secure’ before opening. While large chains such as M&S and Primark have armies of back office staff to check safety measures, small and medium businesses will also have to do risk assessments and ensure they comply with the guidance.

Before opening, BIRA members are installing perspex screening and social distancing signage as well as stocking up on hand sanitiser and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for staff.

Some experts fear that not all businesses understand the implications of not taking every measure possible.

‘Opening safely and in line with the guidance is doable, but my concern is that some SMEs have not understood the implications of not being compliant and I don’t think the government has made enough of this,’ says Andrew Ruffell, owner of risk assessment software business Risk Warden.

All shops are required to carry out a risk assessment before reopening, and are likely to need to put in place measures to ensure that staff and shoppers are kept safe. These may include one-way systems around the store, updated protocols around who touches the stock and how it is cleaned afterwards, and using screens and barriers to keep workers safe..

‘The risk assessment should be a live document,’ Andrew Goodacre says, adding that ‘this is to protect business owners from being sued if everything is date stamped.’

A lot of businesses will have to invest in new signage and safety measures before opening again. Applying for a Bounceback loan is one way to finance this, says Cheryl Sharp, accountant and founder of Pink Pig Financials. ‘Many businesses which have already faced a huge loss of income are now having to find money to purchase all the necessary PPE to reopen,’ she says. ‘These loans have given many a lifeline and the chance to reopen.’

Bounceback loans are interest-free for the first 12 months, and then repayable at 2.5 per cent a year. For more information on how to apply for these, go to gov.uk

The five-point plan for reopening: BIRA’s steps to make your business Covid-secure

READ THE GOVERNMENT GUIDANCE

For businesses in England, this means reading the Working Safely During Coronavirus guide at gov.uk. There are separate guides for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on their government websites.

RISK ASSESSMENT

Complete a full risk assessment (downloadable from the BIRA website, or firms such as Risk Warden which offers a live version). You will need to carry out one of these even if you remained open, BIRA experts say.

A RE-OCCUPATION CHECKLIST

If you’ve not been in your building for a while, there may be unforeseen risks with relation to issues such as fire safety and legionella, so ensure you’ve checked everything before you allow staff back in the building.

PROTECT YOUR EMPLOYEES, CONTRACTORS AND CONSUMERS

Invest in necessary signage, PPE and hand sanitiser to keep everyone safe.

COMMUNICATE YOUR COVID-SECURE STATUS

Download the government’s poster stating that you’ve carried out your obligations, and sign and display it to tell customers and staff you’ve thought about their safety.

‘We’ve recruited staff and are busier than ever’

Nick Bending, UpCountry Garden Centre Haywards Heath, Sussex

‘If lockdown had been in September or October, or if the weather had been worse, this would have been a different story,’ says Nick Bending, managing director of UpCountry Garden Centre.

The garden centre reopened in May, in accordance with the government’s new rules, and business has been ‘phenomenal’, he says.

‘We’ve broken all records. At the beginning of the lockdown, I had no idea what would happen. I thought we might end up laying people off. As it is, we have recruited staff and never been so busy.’

Because UpCountry has a pet supplies arm, classed as an essential business, it stayed open in a limited way throughout lockdown. It also increased its internet deliveries from single digits every week to between 80 and 100.

When garden centres were allowed to reopen, Nick (pictured tabove) had to make changes before allowing more members of the public into the store. ‘My staff have been amazing. Even when you put in safety measures, it is a scary thing to stand up in front of the public at the moment. They have been really supportive.’ UpCountry now employs 25 people.

‘The only bit we haven’t been able to reopen is our café,’ Nick says. Instead, the centre has used the café’s wholesale supplier to provision a grocery store on the premises.

‘We’re supporting vulnerable people who can’t go out by continuing to deliver groceries to them,’ he adds.

‘My hope for the future is that lockdown will have been a watershed moment for Britain’s gardens. Lots of people have got out there for the first time and enjoyed gardening. My hope is that this interest is sustained and the same people continue to garden next year.’

upcountrystorehouse.com

‘I want customers to feel safe while they are queueing outside’

Sarah Laker, Stationery Supplies Marple, Manchester

Sarah Laker’s stationery shop in Marple had been open six days a week for the past 14 years until lockdown. After shutting on March 23, she’s now preparing to reopen to face the new normal. ‘When the UK stopped on March 23, I was angry, sad and lost,’ she says. Initially, she concentrated on her online shop, Giraffe Gifts, which increased sales by 300 per cent, and has raised £500 for a local charity having her head shaved live on Facebook.

Now, she is concentrating on safer reopening strategies.

‘It’ll be different, as I still need to support my customers who aren’t able to visit the shop, so deliveries will continue. I also need to keep everyone safe including my 21-year-old daughter isolating at home,’ she explains. ‘My staff are furloughed, and not coming back just yet while I see how everything works out and that I’m happy with the plans I’ve put into place to keep everyone safe.’

Sarah (pictured above) won’t open the entire shop to customers, because of issues with people touching the stationery and putting it back. ‘I usually get 50-80 customers a day through the shop, and my shop is all about the feel. Stationery is a very sensual experience, pens and notebooks have to feel right, and customers will spend ages choosing,’ she says. ‘I wouldn’t know what had been touched, and with guidelines being unclear over the transmission of the virus, the safest thing is to limit what customers touch.

‘I’ve also thought about how to help customers to feel safe while queueing outside. I came up with the unique idea of pencil images to mark the two-metre points. Local artist Dominic Phillips (above) offered to do these for me and came up with a stunning pencil and bee design.

‘My customers overwhelmingly wanted to support me and to keep my business alive, and for that I am so grateful.’

giraffegifts.co.uk

‘Our face masks remind people to be careful’

Joe Nutkins, Dog Training for Essex & Suffolk, Colchester

Joe Nutkins’ dog training business in Colchester has been closed since mid March. ‘Most of our work is group classes but as soon as lockdown was announced we also stopped one-to-ones,’ she says. ‘I’ve been running free online classes, webinars and games on our Facebook pages to try to give our clients support.’

In preparation for reopening on June 15, Joe (above) has done a Covid online safety course, covering many of the things she’ll have to do to ensure everyone’s safety. ‘The course covered areas such as proper hand cleaning, including under the wedding ring, forearms etc, as well as areas at work daily, weekly or monthly, so door handles would be cleaned daily, and before and after each customer,’ she says.

‘There was lots of information about how the virus spreads, how it affects the body and more, which has increased our understanding of how we can keep ourselves and our customers safe. We are starting with one-to-one training first from June 15, where we have a list of measures in place for us to follow to reassure our customers and team, as well as guidelines for all visitors to our premises to follow.

‘We have signs up reminding people to keep their distance as once talking about dogs it’s so easy to get caught up in the moment and forget that there is a pandemic happening!’

The company has also invested in dog-themed masks. ‘The face masks we will be wearing are to help remind us all that we are in unusual times and that we still need to keep our spacing, so serve an additional purpose to just trying to minimise droplets from passing person to person.’

If the one-to-one classes work well, Joe is hoping to open more fully in a few weeks, offering more usual group classes.

dogtrainingessex-suffolk.co.uk