Re-opening: small businesses in Norwich

Norwich St Benedicts Street

Sign in No 37 salon
Sign in window at
Norwich salon, No 37

Norwich small business owners report that business has picked up in the last two weeks as holidaymakers return to the area, but changes to the roads as a coronavirus measure aren’t going down well with business owners or consumers.

On the day when wearing a face covering became mandatory in shops and malls in the UK, Tide writer Suzanne Worthington went to East Anglia’s shopping hub to find out how trade is going.

Fabric face masks on display at Imelda's shoe shop
Fabric face masks on display at Imeda’s

Little Shop of Vegans

Norwich is the UK’s most vegan-friendly city because it’s so well served by specialist shops, bars and cafes (according to a 2019 study by Nisbets).

The Little Shop of Vegans has been part of this movement in Norwich since it opened in 2016 on Magdalene Street.

In June 2019, the shop moved to St Benedict’s Street, cunningly opposite The Tipsy Vegan, a popular bar where all food and drinks are vegan-friendly.

At the beginning of March, as lockdown hit, shop owner Rachel Cox and her partner spent two weeks fast-forwarding their website development to offer click-and-collect. Then they added local home delivery. Rachel is thrilled that this went so well, they’ll soon be offering UK-wide delivery.

To keep costs down, Rachel does most of her finances herself but her accountant has been helpful making sure the shop gets the Government support they’re entitled to. Currently the shop is taking 60 to 70% of the usual revenue. Trade has been affected by the one-way traffic system set up by the council as a coronavirus measure.

Customers with limited mobility would usually park up and pop into the shop to pick up their order – and so would other customers who just want to grab a few things in a hurry. Without parking bays, these shoppers are going elsewhere (probably supermarkets with large car parks).

Traders and shoppers in other towns (including Stratford-upon-Avon where we reported from last week) are also dealing with new traffic schemes like these. In Norwich, the measures have created a one-way flow, removed parking bays and allowed space for terrace tables outside restaurants. According to another shop owner on the same road, licences for outdoor tables hadn’t yet been approved.

So how successful are the coronavirus traffic measures? Well, the street looks like it’s undergoing roadworks, there are no park-and-pick-up bays, delivery drivers are having sat-nav-related near-misses, and restaurants can’t yet use the new outdoor space. The scheme isn’t merely keeping customers apart, it’s keeping them away. Score: coronavirus one, traders nil. Rachel, along with the other business owners on the street, is negotiating with the council to rethink the traffic scheme.

Despite the traffic measures, Rachel and the team at The Little Shop of Vegans are optimistic about 2020. They hope more people will choose to shop local and opt for more plant-based meals, and this will maintain or increase their trade into 2021.

Black Dog Tattoos

Nearby at tattoo studio Black Dog Tattoos, owner and artist Jon Longstaff’s mood is not the depression suggested by the studio’s name, instead he’s rather more stoic.

Jon and his artists – all self-employed – spent lockdown rearranging appointments, working on designs and waiting for instructions about re-opening. Customers understood they couldn’t get a new tattoo or finish an existing one, but the Black Dog team would have liked more clarity and guidance from the Government and their industry’s professorial organisations.

All the team have received Government support: the studio got the Small Business Grant and the artists got Self Employed Income Support grants.

The studio re-opened last week. Tattoo studios like Black Dog have always been scrupulously hygienic so following coronavirus guidelines has been straightforward.

For now, business is back to normal and the team are busy with appointments and new enquiries. But Jon warns that the full economic reality will hit later this year. Employers will make redundancies so customers will limit their spending, and businesses will reach the end of their deferment period for VAT and supplier payments. For the rest of 2020, Jon and his team at Black Dog are maintaining the British spirit of ‘keep calm and carry on’.

The Wolf Pack Salon

At The Wolf Pack Salon on St Benedict’s Street, hairdressers Kirsty Jones and Libby Harrison are delighted to be back at work. And equally happy to be back in the salon are their two dogs! One of the salon’s USPs is that they are dog-friendly.

Kirsty with a client, haircutting
Kirsty with a client

Because they operate from a premises, the Wolf Pack got the Government’s Small Business Grant and because Kirsty and Libby are self-employed, they got the Self Employed Income Support grant.

As soon as the Government gave the date that salons could reopen (4 July), the team were in touch with clients and fielding calls from customers keen to book in.

The salon is now as busy as before. Unlike in other countries, clients in hair salons don’t have to wear a mask so the experience is much the same as before – but with the hairdresser wearing PPE and using disposable towels.

Kirsty and Libby don’t pack in the customers like a commercial branded salon – they prefer to work in a more relaxed atmosphere. For example, clients won’t find themselves sitting next to strangers while they get their colour done. Touches like this, and the friendly dogs pottering around, must be reassuring for anxious customers venturing out of lockdown.

Churros for the People

Over at Norwich’s famous market, stall-holder Hugo Malik is winding down the day’s service at his Spanish food stall and deli, Churros for the People.

Buying lunch at Churros for the People
Buying lunch at
Churros for the People

Market traders in Norwich rent units which qualify for the Small Business Grant. This support from the Government has helped tide over traders during the coronavirus interruption but Hugo believes the full extent of the disruption will only be realised later in 2020 and into next year.

During lockdown, some traders ran delivery services or set up online shops, but Hugo didn’t rush to do this because he prefers ‘old school’ face-to-face trading. Instead, he used the time to reflect and has refined his operations to make working at the stall more efficient and enjoyable.

Hugo is pleased revenue for July has been good, slightly higher than July 2019. But trade isn’t back to normal for the food stalls in the market. The Monday-to-Friday lunch trade has dropped dramatically because thousands of office workers who used to come into the city centre have vanished. Major employers such as Aviva are continuing their policy of work-from-home and university staff and students aren’t around so all Norwich’s eateries and food stalls are in competition for a smaller group of customers.

Customer behaviour is different too – while many of Hugo’s regulars are very happy to be able to get their fix of sizzling chorizo sandwiches and Spanish salad boxes, Hugo reports that his current lunchtime customers avoid 1 til 2pm because they believe it will be busier. Instead he’s busier at 12.30 and 3pm while 1 – 2pm is quiet.  

And without major events in town such as the Lord Mayor’s Show and Pride (which was scheduled for this weekend and cancelled), Hugo is selling fewer churros compared to last year: this July, just 60% compared to July 2019. Meanwhile, he’s selling more deli items – paella rice, spices, pickles and more – than in 2019, perhaps because more people are cooking at home and keen to try unusual ingredients from his stall.

Hugo and the other traders are negotiating with the council for a rent discount and other measures to help the market stay afloat. Handily for the traders collective, Hugo was previously a city councillor so he knows more than a thing or two about how the council operates.

The brightly-coloured roofs of the market feature on every tourist brochure and article about the city, so traders hope the council will see how important it is for Norwich’s reputation as a shopping destination to keep the market thriving.

Cookes

Cookes music equipment store
Cookes music equipment store

Norwich independent store Cookes has been operating since 1887. Every musician in the region knows the store, which has been on the same site in St Benedict’s Street since 1968.

Store manager Mark Hedge told me that during lockdown, Cookes continued selling online but trade slowed down. Many customers are working musicians, either full-time professionals or members of bands who gig at weekends. But because gigs, events and sessions are cancelled, they haven’t been replacing or adding to their kit.

For Cookes, the council one-way traffic scheme has been a disaster. Their customers like to park up and pop in – they want to see and touch items rather than buy online. While internet shopping boomed during lockdown, another trend in retail is speed. What could be faster than going into a shop to buy something and taking it away with you?

Guitars at Cookes, Norwich
Guitars on display
at Cookes

The short-stay parking bays were particularly useful for people buying heavy or bulky kit like drums or PA equipment. And Mark notes that customers often buy more than they originally intended. They might arrive just needing to replace a broken guitar string, but they leave with the string, a new strap and some sheet music!

The store occupies a site that used to be a pub. The building has been extended over the years and customers often have no idea how big the space is and the range of products Cooke’s stock.

In keeping with the shop’s heritage, the directors have plans to theme each room: Acoustic Guitar Snug, Electric Guitar VIP Lounge, a studio theatre space to show off PA kit… and of course, the front shop counter remodelled to look like a bar. But with only two staff back from furlough and sales uncertain for the rest of the year, all plans are currently on hold.

Norwich Art Supplies

Like Cookes, nearby store Norwich Arts Supplies caters for both amateurs and professionals. I spoke to shop assistant Caroline who was pleased to be furloughed which allowed the shop’s owners to continue paying her wages during lockdown and then claim reimbursement from the Government.

Pastels on display at Norwich Art Supplies

While the store closed to the public, the owners ran a click-and-collect services and offered deliveries within Norfolk. This was popular as people in the area chose to buy local and receive their order quickly, rather than opting for a home delivery giant like Amazon.

To Caroline, trade appears to be at the same level as before but with fewer customers placing bigger orders. Is it that customers who are furloughed from work have time to rekindle their artistic hobbies or start new ones? Caroline’s not sure but she confirms that there’s one customer segment missing completely at the moment: the university students. The store hope to welcome them back when classes restart.

Raphael’s Crafts

Across the road at Raphael’s, the family who run the well-stocked jewellery and craft store knew back in January that 2020 was going be an unusual year.

Exterior of Raphael's shop in Norwich
Window-shoppers
at Raphael’s

Ben Allen, son of the owners, explained how the store’s products come from buying trips they make to Bali, China and Poland to view and choose pieces. This year, rather than returning via China, their trip to Bali was curtailed by Covid-19 and the trip to Poland is postponed indefinitely.

The company has three units: a jewellery and accessories stores in Norwich and Lowestoft, and a bead and gemstone store in Norwich. Because they have three units, they were eligible for three Small Business Grants.

During lockdown, the family were able to spend more time photographing stock to enhance their website. Online trade was busy – Ben thinks this is because customers were spending more time at home and planning decorating projects.

Sunburst mirror on display at Raphael's
Mirrors on display at Raphael’s

Some pieces sold out before even getting into the shop. The most popular item was a mirror with sun pattern in orange (similar to the one in the photo here). Customers also bought gifts online and several people have come into shop since reopening to buy presents they were promised before or during lockdown.

One positive aspect of the lockdown for Ben was that people have been re-evaluating their lifestyles. He’s happier working four days a week instead of six and he hopes other people are making similar changes to improve their health and happiness.

Imelda’s

In case you didn’t guess from the name, Imelda’s sells footwear. (Former Filipino First Lady Imelda Marcos famously owned over 1,000 pairs of shoes.)

The boutique on the corner of Guildhall Hill and Lower Goat Lane has a strong reputation in Norwich for its carefully curated collection of stylish but comfortable shoes, plus some quirky European designs and vegan-friendly options.

The store was eligible for the Government’s Small Business Grant and owner and manager Irene Astley’s suppliers have been helpful, giving her longer terms to pay: up to 90 or 120 days instead of the usual 30.

During lockdown, Irene continued engaging with her customers by finding creative ways to maintain her Instagram presence, @imeldasshoes.

Firstly, by posting a daily video of ‘unboxing’ shoes and accessories – like opening an advent calendar, viewers clicked to find out what was in the box. Then, Irene started taking shoes out with her on her daily exercise. No, not just on her feet – she carried some of the stock with her and photographed the items in some of her favourite spots around Norwich (Grosvenor Fish Bar, William & Florence pub, Eaton Park).

The shoe shop has now been re-open for six weeks. Irene notes that it’s been much busier in the last two weeks – she thinks this is because people are now taking holidays. Customers tell her they’re on holiday at the Norfolk coast and having a day out shopping, or they’re taking a mini-break in the city.

While holidaymakers are back, weddings, parties and events are cancelled or postponed so women aren’t buying fancy shoes. While Irene isn’t too concerned because she can keep stock from this year to sell in summer 2021, the lack of sales of these products has led to one set-back for the store: the Irregular Choice concession at Imelda’s has closed. The Irregular Choice shoe brand is famous for highly decorated and unusual shoes – not what people were buying during lockdown. The brand decided to close their Norwich concession and Irene believes they’re closing in other areas too.

Shoes on display at Imeda's
Shoes on display at Imeda’s

Fortunately, Imelda’s doesn’t only sell fancy shoes. The top sellers during lockdown were Birkenstocks and similar flats – practical slipper-like shoes for wearing around the home or schlepping to the shop. Normally, Imelda’s top-sellers are winter boots so Irene hopes for strong sales as we head into autumn.

Overall, the team at the shop are very positive that trade in Norwich will recover well because the city is well-known as the best place for shopping in East Anglia.

Norwich market's famous coloured roofs
Norwich market

Tide writer Suzanne will be reporting from other towns soon.
Come back to the Tide blog for more posts like this.

Have your say

How has the coronavirus crisis affected your company? If you’ve reopened, how is trade going? We’re keen to hear from you – get in touch with us on LinkedInFacebook or Twitter.

Photos by Suzanne Worthington © Tide

Suzanne Worthington

Senior Writer

Tide Team

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