Most UK small businesses have faced significant disruption because of COVID-19 and the lockdowns introduced to control it. Although some businesses haven’t survived, the fatality rate would have been much higher if not for government financial support that some (not all) have accessed.
However, whether by luck, creative thinking or exceptional business continuity management, some small businesses have capitalised on a lockdown-inspired changes. For others, a significant surge in demand has brought a welcome boost to their bottom line – but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been challenges along the way.
The wine seller
Leanne Olivier launched Bradford on Avon-based Cru Wines in November 2019, just months before UK Covid lockdown restrictions were first introduced. “Cru was set up to be an informal place, where people could explore the world of wine in a relaxing, non-pretentious setting. Originally, Cru was a licensed wine shop, where people could enjoy wines in the evenings, learn about wine and take a bottle home, or enjoy an evening of wine-tasting with friends.”
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With the prospect of a lockdown looming, Leanne describes March 2020 as “the most stressful month a business owner could imagine”. Facing months of closure, without great reserves of cash to fall back on, Leanne says she also lacked the mental resilience and confidence a more-established business owner might have. “After the government said hospitality venues must close, before the furlough scheme was announced, regrettably, I was faced with making staff redundant. I was riddled with guilt and shame. I didn’t sleep and couldn’t focus. I was fatigued, overwhelmed and cried a lot,” she admits.
Ironically, soon Leanne was faced with another big problem – a surge in demand in off sales. “People were panic-buying wine and alcohol, because supermarkets had run out,” she explains. “Then, thankfully, the government deemed off licenses to be ‘essential retail’, which meant we could stay open. And more people had the time to shop local, all of which meant our sales remained strong throughout lockdown.”
Leanne also introduced a home-delivery service, which proved shrewd. “We could take phone orders and deliver bottles of wine locally that day. Very quickly, I learned a lot about customers. Many were willing to swap their supermarket wines for ours. The more people found out about our service, the more customers we attracted. Soon we also started online ‘at-home’ wine and beer tastings, with customers able to invite their friends and family along, as something fun to do during lockdown.”
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Matter of pride
After months of steady telephone orders, Leanne turned her focus to selling online. “Conversations with a very helpful customer who was furloughed led to her pretty much setting up and launching my online shop and we haven’t looked back,” she smiles.
Those selling alcohol were among the big Covid lockdown winners, but it hasn’t all been easy, says Leanne. “After their initial empty shelves, supermarkets responded with aggressive deals, driving down wine prices. We also had to compete with national wine merchants and smaller online sellers, but we remained agile, responded well and made many good choices.”
“I’m very proud of Cru in the past year. We kept the business afloat and kept people employed and financially supported, while growing our customer base. If we hadn’t taken chances and been prepared to try new things, it would have been a far tougher year. Being a new business made it easier to adapt to change and because we had nothing to lose, we had a bit of a ‘let’s-try-anything’ attitude, which really paid off.”
The hot tub hirer
Hotubz markets itself as the “original and still the leading hot tub hire specialist in North Devon”. Husband and wife team Surina and Barrie Collins founded the company in 2016. “We introduced rigid inflatable hot tub hire to North Devon and we’ve never been so busy,” Barrie reveals.
UK hot tub sales rose by a reported 1,000% in some months last year, while many people ringing up to hire a hot tub were left disappointed, with supply unable to keep pace with soaring demand in many parts of the country.
“Five years ago, we started with one tub, got up to six and had to invest in six more last year,” Barrie remembers. “Now we’re busy seven days a week, throughout the year, whereas previously our business was largely seasonal. Last year we enabled many people to enjoy a ‘spa-cation’ in their own back garden. Obviously, they couldn’t go on holiday, while, fortunately, the UK weather was mostly warm and sunny for many months.”
Customers also hire Barrie’s tubs for special occasions. “Most bookings come from repeat customers or word of mouth; just ordinary people giving themselves, their families or friends a treat,” he continues. “About a third of our bookings in 2020 came from lockdown birthdays. Hiring a hot tub helped to lift people’s spirits. It enabled them to create better memories during lockdown.”
As well as convenience and good value for money, Barrie says his business offers exceptional hygiene standards and customer service. He’s proud of Hotubz’s 100% five-star customer review rating. “That’s why I didn’t take on any additional staff to cope with increased demand, because it can be hard to find people who care about standards and service levels as much as you do,” he explains.
Rising to the challenge
Consequently, Barrie has worked very long hours in the past year. So, is he looking forward to demand falling? “It will remain high, I think, because many more people are now hiring hot tubs,” Barrie counters. “Coping with increased demand has been challenging, but I’m a grafter – I’m used to hard work. Surina and I are very proud that our business has risen to the challenge.”
The Collins also run an events business, which has been badly affected by the pandemic. “I can totally sympathise with other business owners who’ve had it really tough – we’ve experienced that, too,” says Barrie. “But the hot tubs business is doing really well. We have five years’ experience and an excellent reputation and we receive many enquiries from outside our catchment area, so we’re soon planning to turn Hotubz into a franchise. We’re very optimistic for the future.”
The bicycle retailer
The origins of independent family-owned business Giant Liverpool date back to 2005, when husband and wife Colin and Chris Trigg set up a bike hire business with son Jon. All are cycling fanatics.
“In 2009, we transitioned into the UK’s first store for the Giant cycling brand,” recounts Jon. “As well as selling bikes and leading-brand cycling accessories, we service and repair all makes and models of bicycle.”
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The UK has undergone a “bike boom” since the first lockdown started in March 2020. Bicycle retailers, maintenance and repair businesses have been kept extremely busy, with many people wanting to enjoy healthy, socially distanced exercise in the fresh air, with gyms and other options closed.
Supply and demand
“In 12 years of business, we’ve never known anything like it,” adds Jon. “During the first lockdown, we had people queuing up along the road outside. Fortunately, Giant UK advised us to order enough bikes for the year, so stock shortages weren’t an issue.”
But Jon and his team faced another big challenge. “Getting new bikes built quickly enough for customers was a struggle. Periodically, we had to shut the workshop to services and repairs, so we could concentrate solely on building customer bikes. We had to call in three part-time bike mechanics to help us. My parents, Colin and Chris, were in every day helping on the shop floor. The government voucher scheme also fueled demand for bike repairs last year.”
Winners and losers
On some days it seemed like the phone was ringing non-stop, says Jon. “I was hearing phones in my sleep and waking up in the middle of the night thinking about orders. It was challenging, but exciting, too. There was a real buzz about our premises.
“But being where we are, in the Baltic Triangle near Liverpool city centre, we’re surrounded by bars, restaurants and cafes, so we could see just how badly other businesses were affected. We were grateful to be open and, thankfully, we didn’t have to furlough any staff or let anyone go.”
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Demand for bikes remains very high, Jon says. “We’ve been turning away 10 customers a day for many months. Currently, we don’t have a single hybrid or mountain bike, and more than half our displays are empty, although some stock is coming through again. But, we can’t complain, when you see the shortages that other businesses have faced. We’ve been very lucky, because we were classed as essential retail, while cycling has become unbelievably popular,” he concludes.