A group of leading gift retailers joined GiftsandHome.net last week (Friday May 15) to share their views about how they are planning to re-open, as well as how they are continuing to trade during lockdown, and which products are seeing a spike in sales.
In the latest virtual ‘round table’, hosted by Sue Marks, editor of GiftsandHome.net, Anne Anderson, owner of Paprika in Bath and Chippenham; Richard Barker, owner of four Cilla and Camilla stores in Beaminster, Bridport and Sherborne; Sarah Halsall, owner of Hand Picked By Henrietta stores in Chapel en le Frith and Poynton; Liz Kemp, owner of Kemps General Store in Malton and Kemps on the Coast in Whitby, and Rachel and Paul Roberts, owners of four MOOCH stores in Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire, agreed that re-opening their stores safely next month was very much at the top of the agenda.
“Things seem to be happening very rapidly, and from our perspective, our two shops have different issues in terms of managing customers and the feel of the town,” commented Liz Kemp, owner of Kemps General Store and Kemps on the Coast. “We’ve managed to keep in touch with most of our customers and will be taking it week by week. We are also talking to our staff, as it’s important that they feel comfortable with what we are trying to do. We will probably open our Malton store in June, but I’m less sure about the seaside town of Whitby, as we will need to judge the mood there, and also, to see what the country as a whole is doing, especially with regard to whether or not people are travelling. So I’m prepared to re-open but I don’t want to open ahead too soon because none of us really know what’s going to happen.”
At MOOCH in Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire, Rachel and Paul Roberts, owners of four stores, say that they are actively planning to open on June 2. “But things are changing rapidly so we will be guided by what the government says,” said Rachel. “However, one decision we have taken is that we will only open from 10.30am-4pm on Tuesday to Saturday, whereas, previously, we were open seven days a week. We don’t believe that the volume will be there, and we are also trying to manage the payroll as carefully as we can, so we will probably leave at least half the team on furlough. Importantly, we will be placing a big emphasis on click and collect and will be actively encouraging it.”
Anne Anderson is the owner of two Paprika stores, one in Bath and one in Chippenham. “Chippenham is a reasonably sized shop in a shopping mall whereas the Bath shop is tiny. It’s in a very busy street, even in lockdown, and there are clear protocols – one person in, one person out. Locals are used to that now and their expectation will be that we do the same, with people used to being managed. Our plan is to open the Bath shop on June 1, but for shorter hours to see how we go. In Chippenham, we think we can get four people in at a time, plus two members of staff – one to manage customers going in and out and one to manage transactions. Other stores in the shopping centre will be opening in the first week of June and we feel we need to take advantage of the footfall. Overall, it will be about managing people and being firm but fair.”
At Hand Picked By Henrietta, owner Sarah Halsall, who has two small stores -one in Chapel en le Frith and one in Poynton – says that her biggest issue will be staffing. “Most of my staff have little ones in need of childcare, so the provision won’t be there. We will therefore offer reduced hours and carry on with our home delivery service, pushing people towards the internet rather than encouraging footfall through the shop. We will also be taking the team’s individual feelings into account, and will ensure they take breaks during the day, with shifts where we are closed intermittently so that staff can get a break from wearing PPE. Both of our shops have a circular aisle in the centre, so we’ll put down arrows to create a natural flow. As a naturally chatty shop, it’s going to be hard to eradicate that aspect of our business. We have lots of elderly customers who come in to chat, so supporting them in self-isolation is going to be very tricky.”
At Cilla and Camilla, owner Richard Barker is looking at opening over the weekend of June 13/14, depending on the government guidelines. His four stores span gifts and home, clothes, kitchen and cookware, as well as a café. “We will bring staff in gradually, taking them off the job retention scheme as and when we’ve got a better feel for the business,” explained Richard.
He continued: “Our shops are probably bigger than most people’s, so we’ve got a lot going on at the moment, with screens being installed and distancing tape going down on the floor. Three of our shops lend themselves to a one way system as they have aisles that people can go up and down. As for our clothes store, we think we will use the changing rooms because if we don’t we won’t get sales, which means that we will also get a lot of returns. However, anything that has been tried on won’t go back on the rails until the following day, and we’ll wipe everything down which is pretty much what we do anyway. Initially we are also going to go for card-only for payment as even before lockdown, it represented over 80% of sales. With the contactless limit going up to £45, that figure is sure to be much higher. As for our café, if we can, we’ll open it outside in the courtyard area and will space the tables, consulting with our waiting staff re PPE.”
Liz Kemp added that having done everything she possibly can to deal with the new health, safety and hygiene rules she is still considering the one way system. “We will need some sort of meeter and greeter to ask people what they are looking for and to show them where they can find it, rather than allowing them the luxury of browsing around. It will expedite the process so that people who are waiting will not have to queue for too long.However, I also need to ensure that the team are happy with everything we’re putting in place, to include moving the till and using the back door as an exit. It’s very nuanced and needs to be thought about because the situation won’t go away quickly. It’s not a short term fix.”
At MOOCH, Rachel and Paul Roberts explained that the sales teams have put together plans to re-open the stores, with each outlet facing a different challenge. “For example, one shop is large and on two floors, while the other three are tiny. With the smaller stores, we have decided to go with one customer at a time, where they will pack their own items at the till. We will also have to take away fragrance testers, and candles that have bell jars on them. We’ll be handing out hand sanitisers when people come in, and will have a mix of face masks and visors for staff, depending on their preference. We will also be putting in floor stickers. It all adds up making it expensive to re-open. Plus, we will also be trying to keep the doors open as much as possible too.”
As for needing to have a transactional website, the jury was out. “We’ve never been able to convince ourselves that we needed a transactional website,” stated Richard Barker. “We’ve looked at it again in the lockdown and still can’t make a commercial case for doing it, as we can’t sell our biggest margin earners online. We can’t sell the café online and we don’t sell clothes online because they are major high street brands and we’re not allowed to, as they have their own websites. We also sell a lot of greeting cards but there’s no online market for them.”
Although Liz Kemp managed to put together a website in a week during lockdown, she concurred with Richard. “I’ve been reticent about being online because we’re a bricks and mortar shop and what differentiates us is our personal service. We are interactional. That’s how we have existed. Also, we are a generalist store so it’s difficult to drive people to our website. However, when we opened our second shop in the seaside town of Whitby last year, our brand became recognised, with visitors wanting to go on buying from us. During lockdown I have had the time build the website but I’m still not convinced that when we are not in this situation, the cost of optimising a website and marketing it will be something we want to do in the longer term. However, in this type of situation it has been a lifeline. I go into the shop each morning to deal with the orders and do deliveries to local customers.”
As Sarah Halsall pointed out: “Having a website is a customer expectation, and we are therefore going to re-build our existing website. Our main focus has always been about interaction in the shop, with our website turning over very little, so I was therefore pessimistic about pushing it. However, I feel that currently we do need to have one.”
Rachel and Paul Roberts are no strangers to trading online, having had a website before they opened their first shop three years ago. “The website has always been strategically important for us, although it isn’t very polished. However, it’s not paying the bills for the shops, although we are doing around ten times more business than we usually do. Since the lockdown, greeting cards have been the biggest success story for us online, with people buying 15-20 at a time, and which we offer to write and send for customers. Envelope gifts too, have been really popular, with customers buying four or five at a time. We have also sold a lot of candles and reed diffusers, as well as One Hundred Stars’ kimonos and gowns which all chime with the lockdown period and people spending more time at home.”
Social media however, has been the biggest sales driver, with Liz Kemp commenting that Instagram has been an excellent way to generate business. “There’s been an instant correlation between putting something on Instagram and getting sales. Jigsaws have been our best sellers – we can’t get enough of them – and we have also done very well with books, thanks to a new supplier who can deliver direct to the customer. If we hadn’t had a social media following we wouldn’t have been able to put the message out, with both jigsaws and books especially relevant during lockdown. It’s another way for us to offer our customers something that differentiates us, and for me to adopt a softer tone, telling people about me and my story too.”
Rachel Roberts concurred: “Every time we post something we make sales,” with Anne Anderson commenting that Paprika has a programme in place on Instagram to fanfare the re-opening of both shops. “Making it personal and less about selling will be key,” she emphasised. “We will be telling followers about how things are going and how glad we are to be back. We will also be linking it with our website which is something I’m going to be working on.”
Richard Barker too, has always had a strong presence on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and after the shops closed, used social media to tell customers that they would be back. “Now that we are going to re-open, we have used all these social media platforms to build awareness and keep people engaged about the kind of things we will be selling which includes the new Jellycat Christmas range. We’ve already posted images and had a fantastic response from customers saying that they can’t wait to come in to buy the products from us.”
Sarah Halsall meanwhile, has long seen a link between posting something on Facebook and people coming into the shop. “Now we need to smooth that link so that it will take people to our website where they can buy the products,” she explained. “Our customers have been looking for sentiment gifts and anything with rainbows on. We have also hand delivered a lot of balloons to birthday recipients.”
For Richard Barker, the biggest commercial issue has been with the clothes side of the business. “We have close to £80,000 of Spring/Summer clothes in stock that we haven’t sold,” he pointed out. “However, clothing suppliers have been more generous than I expected and have given us substantial discounts for settling our accounts on time. When we re-open, we are therefore going to start off with a Spring/Summer 50% off sale, and we will still make a margin on it, because of the supplier discounts. In fact, we have already started to post images on Instagram and have had more engagement than we’ve ever had, which leads us to believe that there is a pent up demand there.”
As for local initiatives for the wider community, Richard is planning to distribute to food banks in the towns where he has stores, while Anne Anderson plans to donate 50p from each sale of Paprika’s own brand coasters to local charities. Liz Kemp has been putting together a pack of gifts for key workers who have been nominated by people in the town that have gone above and beyond their duties, while Rachel and Paul Roberts will be offering an increased discount for local NHS staff.
“One of our biggest sellers has been personalised cushions, made by a local supplier, with one design featuring a rainbow together with the NHS logo,” explained Rachel. “We are hoping to raffle it with monies raised going to NHS charities.”
Sarah Halsall too, is continuing to post about initiatives on social media, where the shop is raising money for one local charity in particular, Ollie’s Army. “Embedding ourselves in the community is really important for our ethos,” she stated.
As for lessons learned, Rachel and Paul Roberts said that the pandemic has taught them that cash is King. “We will be less gung ho going forward and will be looking to get our cash reserves strong this year,” said Rachel. Richard Barker agreed. “It’s definitely re-inforced the need to protect cash. It’s also worth investing in a really good insurance broker because thanks to an addition to our policy we have thankfully been covered for the pandemic.” Liz Kemp praised her accountant and the help she has received as a member of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB). “They’ve come up with ideas and kept their members informed,” she pointed out. “I’m valuing these relationships and I really understand how important maintaining my relationship with my customers is.”
Anne Anderson said that she would no longer be taking on a long term liability. “Moving forward, the pandemic has highlighted that I want more flexibility with regard to my shop leases, while Sarah Halsall said that for her, the lockdown has given her the opportunity to step back and re-asses the profitability of each item that she sells. “We will be cutting the deadwood and moving forward with items that are more profitable and that we enjoy selling.”
Looking to the next few weeks, Liz Kemp says that people are aware that small businesses have had a tough time and believes that they will want to show that they are appreciative of what they do. “They will hopefully remember who was there for them during lockdown,” she stated.
Added Richard Barker: “We have been cautious with our planning about how quickly business will return, but I suspect it might be stronger and quicker than we thought.”
Top: Six gift shop owners Zoomed in for a chat with GiftsandHome.net.