Covid and Beyond – the Reaction from 16 Resilient Hungerford Businesses

Hungerford businesses and covid

If you knew back in February 2020 that for most of the next 15 or so months your business would be forced to shut, your supply chains would be disrupted, your cash-flow torpedoed and your customers ordered to stay at home, you might have said, “well, I might as well close down now – no way I’m going to survive that.” And yet, certainly in Hungerford, most of the businesses have so far weathered the storm. Perhaps there’s sometimes an advantage in not seeing what the future holds and just taking everything, as the football managers say, one game at a time. We are clearly a very resilient species and Hungerford is clearly a very resilient town.

We asked 16 of our clients in Hungerford, all involved in the retail sector in one way or an other, for their thoughts on the pandemic and its aftermath. We got too much material to use everything they said – so here’s the gist.

What has been the most challenging aspects of the pandemic for your business?

Not surprisingly, there were quite a few issues that were picked out. Mark Ranson from Herongate Club surely speaks for many when he said that “it’s been challenging to control our costs while having minimal income.” Government support was available, but this protected some sectors more than others (including his). Worse still, according to Romila Arber from Honesty, was the uncertainty: “Once we took the decision in early December to close until the beginning of April things became much more within our control.” Many other business owners, including Andy Spaake from the West Berkshire Injury Clinic, found the “on-off-on lockdowns” the worse aspect as, aside from anything else, it disrupted regular treatment plans. The short notice of changes – perhaps inevitable in the circumstances – also made life very difficult. Few would have found this more challenging than Veronica Bailey from Fare Wise Travel who has spent the last 12 months grappling with ever-changing regulations imposed by every country from which she was trying to repatriate her customers.

The internet, so often cited as the great enemy of bricks-and-mortar retailers, in many ways proved to be their salvation. Some businesses were further down this road than others in February 2020. Online sales also works better for some products than others. “My biggest challenge,” said Caroline Dallas from Luna Boutiques, “was how I was going to sell my current stock online with a limited online presence?” Some retailers, like Alex and Emma Milne-White at the Hungerford Bookshop, were fortunate in that their industry’s EPOS system enabled, almost overnight, all their in-shop stock to be uploaded to their web site. That, however, only replaced one problem with another. “Our stock changes daily,” Emma explained. “Making sure the website reflects this accurately and dealing with the online transactions takes several hours each day.” Indeed, many retailers are finding that the demands of e-commerce are outstripping the ability of their websites, and sometimes of the retailers themselves, to cope.

Perhaps the theme that resonated the most, however, was the lack of human contact. Retailers tend to like people so perhaps score this this more than many. “I really miss the interaction of chatting to people,” Mel Tozer of Belle Chic said. “Social media just isn’t the same.” Some services like facials and hairdressing, obviously demand face-to-face contact. For many others, it’s not mandatory but still very important. “Not all legal and financial matters are easy to conduct over Zoom or the telephone,” Karen Salmon of Hungerford Legal and Financial Centre points out. “Family-law issues, especially divorce, need the personal touch to deal with delicate situations and not everyone likes to talk about their finances over the phone.” Even in the periods when customers have been allowed in shops, things were far from easy. “It was sometimes hard to hold a conversation when both people were wearing face coverings,” said Fiona Hadrell of Inklings. “Sometimes we had to raise our voices.” This doesn’t make for, as the marketeers would have it, ‘a relaxing retail experience.’ Even companies that have always had to have very high hygienic standards were sometimes daunted by the new demands. “Oh my word, the cleaning!” said Mel Tozer. “It never ends…”

Are there any positives about how your business will run in the future?

As might be expected, many retailers found that the pandemic had spurred them to engage with clients in different ways. The West Berkshire Injury Clinic learned that it was possible to treat some conditions remotely and Belle Chic has managed to organise virtual consultations. Others, like Luna Boutiques and the Hungerford Bookshop, have found that their online customer base has grown and widened. Inklings noticed that “several new people,” came into the shop during the re-opening period in the summer of 2020. “Before Covid, our online clients were pretty much drawn from those who visited the Bookshop,” Emma Milne-White added. “That’s changed and we’re now getting online customers from much further afield.” The trick, for them and others, will be to ensure that they can continue to service this increasingly diverse group of purchasers, many of whom they may never meet.

The forced closures of premises also provided the opportunity for some on-site improvements, most of which will still be valid post-Covid. “We’ve invested in a 100% fresh air circulation system and antiviral fogging cleaning,” said Mark Ranson of Herongate. Adrian Gilmour from the Hungerford Arcade managed to do “some major repairs which would, in normal circumstances, have completely disrupted the business.”

Others found that lockdown provided an opportunity to re-evaluate their work/life balance. Running a retail business requires long hours, only some of which are spent with the ‘open’ sign on the front door. For Chris Bessent from The Clockmaker, the working day starts at 5.30 to 6am and doesn’t end til about 8pm. “I’ve been glad of the opportunity to lie in now and then,” said Nigel Montgomery of the Coin and Stamp Centre. “In future, my opening hours will be contracted to reflect this new regime.”

Not surprisingly, many said that Covid had spurred them to make better use of IT, in some cases supported by regulatory changes. (An amendment to the law was, for instance, needed to enable local councils to vote remotely.). “We now use remote document signing and can accept evidence via a video link,” explained Karen Salmon. “This not only enables us to grow our business but also gives those who can’t travel to the office, whether due to Covid restrictions or not, equal access to legal advice.”

Many others have realised the value of an active social-media presence. “We’ve really noticed and appreciated the importance of our loyal followers on both Instagram and Facebook,” said Barbara Mills from The Emporium. “We now do daily posts – not the same as face-to-face interaction, but a lot better than nothing.” (It’s worth pointing out that Hungerford has a pretty good broadband service: those areas, like Upper Lambourn, which don’t, or people who are unwilling or unable to use the web are perhaps left behind faster than ever before. Helping bridge this gap should surely be a major plank of government policy.)

Being small also has advantages at times of major change (as the mammals discovered 65 million years ago). “As a small business, we found that our flexibility, and quick reaction times were a big positive,” said Simon Evans from The Naked Grape. “We learnt lessons about customers and our business that we will use in the future.”

How well do you think Hungerford as a community has responded to the pandemic?

A pretty unanimous reaction to this one – “an amazing coming together,” “nothing but praise,” “tremendously good,”, “a careful and caring community,” “really impressed,” “a respectful and supportive town,” and “wonderful community spirit,” were just some of the phrases. The work of the Self-isolation Group was particularly praised by many, as was the continuation of the open-air Wednesday markets. Perhaps we might let Hungerford’s Mayor, Helen Simpson, have the last word on this: “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. What an amazing community Hungerford is!”

What measures, by national or local government or any other organisation, would you like to see put in place to help mitigate any similar threat in the future?

Most people in the country have an opinion on what has gone well and what less well in the last year. Few would argue that nothing could have been done better (although opinions differ as to whether now or later is the time to argue about these). Not all of the local retailers we asked responded to this question but, of those who did, the issue of communication loomed large. Travers Nettleton of Barr’s Yard spoke for many when he suggested “clearer and more forceful messaging” would be important in dealing with any similar threat. Nigel Montgomery agreed, saying that “the messages being sent out to the public could have been far clearer.” Veronica Bailey also that government messages should be “prompter” (presumably, she would extend this to all other governments, and the numerous carriers and regulatory bodies in the travel industry). The question, though, is also whether in countries like Britain (and many others) which have a high level of scepticism about government, any messages would be sufficiently widely obeyed – command economies, though in many ways less pleasant to live in during normal times, have generally fared better during Covid.

Other suggestions were more specific and included a cross-party task force to identify and plan for future threats (Mark Ranson), increased investment in the NHS and better collaboration with the private sector (Andy Spaake), more testing and vaccination centres (Karen Salmon) and an extension to the business rates holiday and a VAT reduction (Romila Arber). Others recognised that changes closer to home would also be needed if local retailers were to be supported. “30 minutes free parking on the High Street would be a good idea,” suggested Pauline Jackson from M&P Hardware. This idea has been mooted several times before. Perhaps its moment has now come.

It’s been clear that the responses from local councils have often been more effective than those from Westminster. In the same way, Simon Evans suggests, the role that small local firms have played in keeping life going should be recognised. “It would be brilliant,” he said, “if everyone remembers it’s been the work of the smaller companies that’s really made a different during these strange times.”

What do you think people’s shopping habits and behaviour will be like in the post-pandemic ‘new normal’  ?

Opinions differed as to what extent life would return to anything approaching the old normality. “People will certainly demand more space and cleanliness when exercising,” Mark Ranson suggested, while Mel Tozer felt sure that the use of face coverings, in the health and beauty sectors, would probably persist. Andy Spaake hoped that one result would be “an increased awareness of the importance of health and wellbeing.”

Almost all agreed, however, that the craving for renewed social interaction would need to be satisfied. “People want and need human contact,” Romila Arber observed, “so for that reason alone, retail has a great future.” She also believed that people may continue to shop online for basics: though this doesn’t mean that this has to be from Amazon. Emma Milne-White felt that people would continue to want to have online browsing and purchasing from their local shops as an alternative: click and collect might therefore be here to stay.  She suggested this would also extend to events (remember them?), with virtual and live ones merging and the latter “being streamed as a matter of course.”

How this balance between on- and offline shopping works out remains to be seen. Travers Nettleton suspected there may be “a rush back to retail outlets of all types: while online sales will continue to grow there is nothing like being able to see and touch the products you want to buy which people have undoubtedly missed and will want to return to.” Simon Evans agreed, saying that he felt we would soon return to “a rhythm of life and shopping habits similar to before.” It’s not just the customers that want this, either: “our staff thrive on face-to-face contact,” said Barbara Mills. Most people will hope that some face-to-face contact will result soon.

Money, of course, comes into it too. There’s a perception, not always borne out by the reality of the final transaction details when delivery charges have been added, that online purchases are always cheaper. Certainly we’ve all become more savvy shoppers. Karen Salmon suggested that the better deals which can sometimes be found online would discourage a rapid return to old habits. Many retailers, however, were quick to stress the level of personal attention that one can never get online – “the open door, the courteous service and the expert knowledge,” as Pauline Jackson put it. Veronica Bailey also stressed that experts like travel agents offer a “complete and personalised service which protects your money and helps you get refunds if your plans change for reasons beyond your control.”

Others were more cautious. “I fear that many small retailers won’t re-open,” said Nigel Montgomery, while Chris Bessent agreed that “a lot of good businesses will close, or have already done so.” The continuation of a simple, equitable and comprehensive package of government support will be vital to help prevent more going the same way. There’s also the question of public confidence: a microscopic and invisible enemy is in many ways more terrifying than the bombs of the Blitz. “People will still be cautious going out,” Karen Salmon suggested, “and some will prefer to stay in small familiar groups.”

Everyone agreed that they are not in the same place as they were a year ago. Hopefully many will share Romila Arber’s analysis: “We are a much stronger business as a result of these trying times,” she said. “We are more organised, trimmer in terms of costs and have invested in technology much earlier than we would have done.” It’s been widely suggested that the pandemic has accelerated a number of trends (particularly towards a greater reliance on IT, flexible working and an increased awareness of public health and hygiene) that might otherwise have taken ten or twenty years to work through. Change is a regular feature of life and the need to be flexible and adaptive is thus vital. Much has been written recently about the virus’ ability to change and mutate (which is sometimes good news for us). Businesses have had to do that as well, and over a similar timescale.

Two things, though, probably won’t change. One is that people will want to shop where it is safe, pleasant and convenient for them to do so; the other is that Hungerford is clearly a pretty good place to be at the moment. “Hopefully, people will have discovered how much is available locally,” said Fiona Hadrell, “and that they will continue to support all of the local businesses. We are so lucky to be part of such a lovely town.”

Brian Quinn


One Response

  1. Congratulations on yet another excellent Penny Post. Read from cover to cover and now feel up to date with local news both COVID related and otherwise.

    Well done Penny on your recent recognition of your work (NWN report) and Brian for your great writing.

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