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Thursday, April 18, 2024
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One victim of the war on small retailers

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THROUGHOUT the United Kingdom high street retail is dying. Whether its demise is being hastened via an ‘end of life’ pathway orchestrated and administered by government decision-makers is the burning question.

The latest nail in the high street coffin is the the Body Shop going into administration, following the 2023 collapse of Wilko. The acceleration began when Debenhams fell along with over 17,500 retail premises during 2020. This was when the term ‘non-essential’ began to be etched into the subconscious of the public. It was part of the mass social experiment that was the locking down of the population and the prevention of the majority of SMEs (small and medium enterprises) from trading as normal.

Of course, there was the Bounce Back Loan Scheme where smaller businesses could borrow up to £50k to keep them afloat, but for a significant number of independent retailers footfall is still ‘way below its pre-pandemic level’ with reasons cited such as remote working. The cost of living crisis will undoubtedly have added to a lower spend in the high street, as it has with online spending.

My father owns a small independent business of three greetings card shops (one is currently for sale) established 35 years ago and he has been completely demoralised by events of the last four years. Having decided to downsize his modest operation in the South Wales valleys in 2019 at the age of 71, he had no idea that the government would soon step in with a sledgehammer and do the job for him.

He previously worked tirelessly seven days a week powered by an iron will and determined outlook, yet the last four years have mentally taken their toll on my dad. I now regularly travel 90 miles to assist where I can. My presence temporarily lifts the fog of depression and hopelessness that is his ‘new normal’. Now 75, his desk is littered with paperwork and his email inbox is never cleared, and he still has to work behind the counter to save on costs.

The sledgehammer blow arrived in March 2020. During almost four months of closure, unaccustomed to doing nothing, my father would spend days tidying and sorting his shop behind closed doors. He made no income apart from a few sporadic orders to customers who contacted him on a ‘click and collect’ basis. On one occasion, my father misplaced the small bag of greetings cards that had been put aside for a customer, so allowed the customer and her husband to enter through the back door of the shop to reselect their items. Typically, local council officials were lurking. A sharp rap on the shop door followed, together with an interrogation. This resulted in a formal written warning days later which contained the damning indictment that ‘customers were seen browsing the cards’, together with the applicable breach of coronavirus guidelines outlined therein for good measure.

When non-essential businesses were permitted to reopen in late June 2020, the tyranny of trading standards officials began in earnest. My father first received a verbal warning regarding the absence of arrows on his floor, soon rectified with some hastily chopped up parcel tape being arranged in the form of arrows under the watchful glare of council officials.

Another visit was paid for Hand Sanitiser Inspection. Several small bottles left near the shop entrance had been pinched by customers, which meant my father had positioned them further away from the door. This was not acceptable to Trading Standards, neither was the fact that one bottle did not state the required percentage of alcohol content on the label.

My father chose not to wear a face covering when the rules in Wales came into force in September 2020. This resulted in a customer one day fishing in her bag for a ‘spare’ mask and physically attempting to put the mask over his face, thus breaking social distancing rules, ironically. He believes he was reported, possibly by this fear-fuelled customer for his barefaced cheeks, since once again, a trading standards officer came to visit asking for the reason he felt unable to mask up.

‘Don’t go there!’ warned my father, very slowly and deliberately. He even received a text message two days later from the same official who stated that they needed a reason in writing for his exemption. They received a text back to state that they pursue this matter at their peril; that he was ready to sue the official and the council without hesitation and quoted the Equality Act 2010. Thankfully, that was the last heard on the matter.

A further body blow was the cruel Christmas lockdown which occurred only in Wales. Any small business will tell you that it is the Christmas trade which makes the annual trade worthwhile. Historically for our business, around 25 per cent of trade for the year has occurred during the six weeks before Christmas.

My father, with his love of puns, had already dubbed the constantly extending furlough payments ‘fur-long’ which mutated to ‘fear-long’ when the government extended them in total to a duration of 18 months. Unfortunately, his attempt at humour backfired when in 2021 three long-serving staff members all decided within the space of a few days that they had enjoyed furlough so much that they didn’t wish to continue full-time employment. One decided to retire and the others obtained part-time positions elsewhere.

This led to a period of strife when a number of new employees consecutively left him in the lurch. The UK parliament reported that the labour market saw around 400,000 fewer people between the ages of 16-64 looking for employment two years after the start of the ‘pandemic’. It became an ‘employee’s market’, with more jobs available than jobseekers. One recruit called in ‘sick’ one day (with a shop having to close for weeks until a replacement was found) when in fact she had attended an interview with a higher paying corporate retailer who greedily wanted her immediate start.

The staff situation has thankfully stabilised, although my father no longer has any incentive to open his shops all day every day, nor to employ any full-time staff, similar to many high street businesses now. Gone are the days when extra staff would be employed for occasions such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. Incidentally, two greetings card shops have closed in my Pembrokeshire locality during the last six months and not uncoincidentally this followed three local branches of Tesco doubling its numbers of greetings card racks. Clearly, the supermarkets realised the benefit of being allowed to sell non-essential items when the independents were banned from doing so.

The pressure of business rates has always been disproportionately felt by independent businesses. The business rate relief granted during Covid has now come to an end and the Bounce Back Loan is still being repaid, now with interest. There are still expensive energy costs to pay.

There will be more pressure to come. SMEs have been estimated to cause 64 per cent of all environmental impact in the EU, and the UK government has already called on small businesses to ‘lead the charge to Net Zero’. I questioned in 2022 whether commercial properties would be forced to decarbonise; the Draft Heat Strategy for Wales confirms this will be so.

Last year Welsh business launched a Green Business Loan Scheme to help businesses on their ‘decarbonisation journey’. Sadly, many SMEs may well be on a journey to closure.

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Nicola Lund
Nicola Lund
Nicola is a former teacher, and now a part time carer with a diploma in journalism . Her Twitter handle is @MrsLund1.. Her Substack page, the ‘Welsh Economic Forum’ can be read here.

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