Re-opening: small businesses in Central London

Fidelio, independent cafe in Clerkenwell

After months of lockdown, Central London’s small businesses have re-opened. But with the threat of a second wave of the virus and more lockdown closures this winter, shops and services face an uncertain future.

Without the tourists, theatre-goers, students and office workers, who is shopping in Central London and how can businesses survive? Tide writer Suzanne Worthington was in Central London to find out.


Shepherd Market

My first stop was Shepherd Market, a quirky village-within-a-city and famous as a ‘secret’ Central London hot-spot of independent businesses.

Originally the area was the site of the market and fair from which Mayfair takes its name.

Today Shepherd Market is an area of narrow streets with mostly independent shops and services. Tucked between Curzon Street and Piccadilly, it’s close to Green Park, Harrods, many finance HQs and some of London’s most famous five-star hotels.

'The Art of Speed’ artwork for sale
‘The Art of Speed’ artwork for sale

At 54 The Gallery, a two-room display space for hire in Shepherd Market, Will Lansbury was setting up his latest exhibition of paintings, photographs and posters under the title of ‘The Art of Speed’. The collection includes bright, energetic paintings, race photographs and authentic vintage race posters, plus fashion photography by Ron Falloon and landscapes.

One-man business Will used to work in advertising and now sells art and collectable memorabilia through regular exhibitions at The Gallery (he hires the space for a week, four times a year), at the RAC Club, or online to collectors.

For Will, the key to selling the pieces is to put them directly in front of the right customers. At the RAC Club for example, the patrons are clearly passionate about motoring – so the artworks never fail to appeal to them.

Previously, The Gallery was also a successful place to sell: it’s located close to many top hotels so hundreds of wealthy tourists would pass through daily, directed by guides to boutique shopping in Central London. And besides these visitors, the anonymous businesspeople who work nearby would stop in for a browse between meetings.

Now, with business conducted from home and international tourists staying away, the footfall at Shepherd Market is just a fraction of what it was before, and the people who do come through aren’t ‘the right type of customer’. Looking around I can only agree: the only people in the area today are construction workers and a few businesspeople out for an early lunch.

Will’s plan for the rest of the year is to finally make his way into selling online. It’s something he’s been putting off for a while and he isn’t yet sure how to distinguish the pieces he sells from cheaper or imitation memorabilia available on auction websites. He is optimistic it’s possible – he notes that during lockdown, auction houses (not to be confused with auction websites like eBay) successfully increased sales because their clients – wealthy collectors – weren’t able to go out so instead added to their collections by buying online.

For now, Will’s dream remains the same as it’s been for years: to find a sponsor and get back into racing Formula 4 or Formula Renault. If that happens, we’ll see him in the race photos not just selling them.

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Joseph’s of Mayfair

Nearby at barbershop Joseph’s of Mayfair, Hicham is waiting for clients. With nothing booked in for the day, he could be in for a long wait.

Hicham and his colleagues do the full range of men’s grooming services, specialising in razor shaves and haircuts but at the moment they’re only offering haircuts.The salon has been at Shepherd Market for two years and the team re-opened as soon as they were able to, on 4 July.

During lockdown, Hicham was furloughed by the business owners (he’s an employee rather than self-employed). He prefers to work – but with no office workers nipping in or tourists passing through, there are no people to serve.

He’s hopeful that clients will return as more workers return to offices from September. But he’s worried about a second wave of coronavirus cases leading to salon closures again.

Today, the salon is spotless, the products for sale are stocked up and tidy but the diary is empty. All Hicham can do is wait for clients.

Simon Carter

Simon Carter shop in Shepherd Market
Simon Carter in Shepherd Market

Men’s clothing retailer Simon Carter is a small business selling from four shops in London and their website. The brand specialises in men’s shirts, jackets and leather accessories. Their founder’s ethos is that good quality and design should be accessible to everyone without the need for a six-figure salary or lottery win.

Shirts on display at Simon Carter
Shirts on display
at Simon Carter

Sam looks after the shop in Shepherd Market. The team decided to re-open the shop on 13 July but the area was so quiet, they promptly closed it again for another two weeks.

Today, footfall is very low and revenue is tiny compared to August 2019. The shop’s usual customers are wealthy foreign tourists and UK tourists. The British shoppers who browse and buy here are often older couples who are visiting London on a city break combo of hotel + dinner + theatre, with a spot of shopping on the agenda too.

Lamb's Conduit Street in Bloomsbury
Lamb’s Conduit Street, almost empty
at 1pm, 10 August 2020

Sam tells me local hotels are at just 15% occupation. With theatres still closed and few international visitors, the Shepherd Market store – along with the other businesses in the area – is suffering. It’s a similar situation for the company’s store in Lamb’s Conduit Street in Bloomsbury. With few office-workers, trade has evaporated.

Conversely, the company’s stores in Crystal Palace and Blackheath are doing well. Both are in retail hubs in residential areas. Customers on furlough with money to spend and the time to spend it have been buying items for going out and staycations: bathing shorts have been very popular as well as the shop’s ever-popular patterned shirts.

Sam reports that the revenue in the Crystal Palace and Blackheath stores is up 60% on last August but he warns that it won’t last. A second wave could cause more shop closures and international tourists might stay away for years. And although Simon Carter sells online, when furlough ends and redundancies begin, Sam worries that customers will cut back on spending.

Nearby stores like Harrods and Selfridges plus chains like M&S have announced hundreds of job cuts – big businesses are in big trouble. And it seems small businesses might not be far behind them.

Farringdon and Clerkenwell

A 20-minute Tube ride to the north east of Shepherd Market are the districts of Farringdon and Clerkenwell, near the London’s financial centre, the City of London.

These districts are usually busy with workers from creative businesses, tech start-ups and the famous jewellery district of Hatton Garden, plus students, performers and visitors at the famous Sadler’s Wells dance venue.

Many independent shops serve this population but with remote working continuing and many offices and arts venues still closed, are there any customers left to serve?

Fidelio Orchestra Cafe

At lunchtime in this independent café on Clerkenwell Road, barista Andrea and chef Nicola were serving the few customers they have.

Fidelio Orchestra Café aims to be more than just yet another coffee house – their mission is to break down barriers to classical music to make it something everyone can enjoy. Everyone is welcome at the café and for newcomers to classical music, the soundtrack and surroundings introduce the genre in an accessible way.

After months obscured by scaffolding, the building work is complete and the café is more easily visible from the street. But with the surrounding offices closed, there are fewer people around to see it.

Drastically different circumstances called for major brainstorming. Andrea explains how café owner Raffaello swiftly adapted the business in three ways to provide what customers want.

The first initiative in evidence when I visited is their participation in WeCoffee, a space-sharing scheme for solo workers or teams. WeCoffee works in a similar way to co-working spaces: members can sign up to a plan (they start from free) to participate, then ‘book in’ with the venue and when they ‘check in’, they can redeem a special offer, such as 20% off their food and drink. At Fidelio, two people had chosen to work (and drink coffee) at the café with the WeCoffee scheme.

Two WeCoffee members using Fidelio as their workspace

The second initiative – and Raffaello’s star idea – is both faithful to the venue’s ethos and truly making up for the shortfall in customers during the daytime. He’s introduced evening events under the title ‘Fidelio Unbound’, attracting top names in the world of classical music and acting to perform at the café.

For £100 per person, patrons get a glass of prosecco when they arrive, the performance and a three-course Italian dinner. And with places limited to just 25, patrons enjoy a socially-distanced night out and get close to the celebrities. Recent performers have been Steven Isserlis, Louis Schwizgebel, Pavel Kolesnikov, Samson Tsoy, Alina Ibragimova, Charles Owen and actor Simon Callow.

The events have been selling out. Customers have been tremendously enthusiastic, the performers are delighted to be performing live again, and do the maths – this smart idea is paying off for everyone.

Lunch at Fidelio
Lunch at Fidelio

Interested? Have a look at the upcoming performances for autumn:
Fidelio Orchestra Cafe | What’s on

The café’s third initiative will better suit you if you’re on a tight budget: Fidelio is participating in the Government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme. Monday to Wednesday in August, you can pop in for coffee or lunch (or both) at half price. Check their opening hours if you decide to go – they’ll be closed for some of August for staff holidays.

Magma

Near Fidelio Orchestra Café, Magma has also been liberated from months of scaffolding over their frontage. Some shops on the street didn’t survive the coronavirus disruption: interiors shop Forest has recently closed down. The company decided to close the Clerkenwell store (their only shop in the UK) and is now based in Amsterdam. Was it due the virus, the scaffolding or a combination?

Magma sells books and other items with a focus on design. Some might see it as a ‘giftshop’ but shoppers are just as likely to buy something for themselves as a gift for someone else. As well as the shop in Clerkenwell, the small company has a shop in Covent Garden in London, and one in Manchester. Each store was eligible for a Government grant and staff were furloughed.

Clerkenwell shop manager Aidan says sales at his store are low at the moment because office workers aren’t around and there are fewer tourists. The media are reporting millions of Brits are taking a holiday in the UK this month – but with London in the middle of the fiercest heatwave since the 1960s, holidaymakers are opting for the coast or countryside, not cities.

The Covent Garden store relies more on tourists so the sales at that shop are suffering more. Similar to Simon Carter in Shepherd Market, Magma’s Covent Garden customers have vanished.

Although Clerkenwell is a business district, the area does have residents. Aidan says these locals have been supporting the store, buying gifts and pleased to see the shop open again.

Aidan’s not sure what the future holds for the company – he’s hoping for a very good sales at Christmas to make up for the disruption. What’s the company’s strategy for enticing people to buy? It’s simple: they source and commission unusual but beautiful items which are irresistible.

As well as the bricks-and-mortar shops, Magma sells online and has a strong Instagram presence which drives sales. But many of the products are tactile such as the design and culture magazines, photography books and textiles – and these are more attractive ‘in the flesh’ than as a photo on a website.

Sure, Magma competes with giants like Amazon – but when a customer finds the perfect gift and has it in their hands, the immediacy of buying in the shop trumps buying online. Equally, buying online works best if you know what you want.

Successful high-street shops curate a collection that’s perfect for browsers looking for inspiration, and they show off their products in a store that’s a pleasurable experience to browse in – just like Magma has been doing for 20 years.

Leather Lane

On weekday lunchtimes before lockdown, this street was full of food stalls. Local office workers loved this daily food festival on their doorstep where you could buy anything from standard street-food fare like falafel and bagels to more unusual options like naan wraps and vegan Ethiopian cuisine. At peak times, queues of workers snaked along the street.

Today, this photograph says it all.

Leather Lane at lunchtime on Monday 10 August 2020
Leather Lane, 2pm
10 August 2020

Spitalfields Market

Spitalfields Market is one of London’s oldest markets. It was renovated and reopened in 2005 to offer a mix of retail: fashion stores, boutiques, food stalls and independent traders. It’s popular with local workers in London’s financial district who pop in for lunch or drinks and a snack before commuting home, and tourists whose guidebooks tell them about the craft and clothing stalls, the array of food options, and the friendly atmosphere.

Today, the stalls and the friendliness are still there – what’s missing is the customers.

NB Accessories

Nur at her stall, NB Accessories
Nur at her stall, NB Accessories

Nur has been selling Turkish jewellery from her stall, NB Accessories, at Spitalfields for eight years. She and her partner, a jewellery designer, travel to Turkey to source pieces to sell at the market.

Many of the surrounding stalls are empty. Nur tells me sales for August will be less than 50% compared to August 2019, due to the decreased footfall.

Nur speaks very positively about the market managers – since lockdown began, they’ve been in touch regularly with traders to pass on Government information, maintain enthusiasm and solidarity among the trader community, and – crucially – gave the stallholders their pitches for free since 15 June.

Nur says she expects the managers will reassess the rent soon but this help has been vital for traders who might otherwise have stayed away. With decreased footfall and rent to pay, traders would risk making a loss.

Jewellery for stall at NB Accessories in Spitalfields Market
Nur’s jewellery stall

Of course, the market’s managers know how important the independent traders are to their market. Although there are shops around the edges of the market, without stallholders like Nur, Spitalfields would be just another upmarket shopping mall rather than a unique buzzy market.

Like the other shopkeepers I spoke to, Nur’s wish for the rest of the year is for plenty of sales at Christmas.

But with a recession officially declared, home-working continuing and the threat of redundancies, will people have money to spend? Maybe not on themselves, but Nur’s beautiful and budget-friendly jewellery should catch the eye of shoppers looking for affordable gifts.

What’s the future for small businesses in city centres?

In Central London and other major city centres like Birmingham, small businesses are facing an extremely difficult year ahead. Those that move quickly to adapt to the ‘new normal’ might succeed to maintain and grow their business.

As we’ve seen above, in contrast to larger organisations, small business owners can quickly put into action a range of initiatives. Gather ideas from customers, staff and your mentors or companies which inspire you, and then select the most promising.

Not sure where to start? Try asking yourself these questions set by Tide member, Rush:
Blog post | Create your 2020 recovery plan: 12 questions to ask yourself

How is your small business adapting? We’re keen to hear from you – get in touch with us on LinkedInFacebook or Twitter.


We exist to serve small businesses

Here at Tide, we can’t do anything to bring back thousands of shoppers to city centres. But we do make life easier for the 200,000+ small business owners who are members of Tide.

If you’re investigating how to adapt your small businesses post-Covid, you’ll also be reviewing your outgoings. If it’s been a few years since you opened your business current account, it’s sensible to shop around to see if you can get a better deal. Did you know that the cost of a Tide business account starts from… free?

While it isn’t yet as quick as switching a personal account, moving your business account could save you hundreds of pounds a year. And with Tide, you can also do your invoicing, calculate and file your VAT return and more. All for FREE.

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All photos by Suzanne Worthington © Tide, unless otherwise stated.

Suzanne Worthington

Senior Writer

Tide Team

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