In Ripon, on a once bustling high street not far from the Yorkshire Dales, Tracey Lidster is feeling “a little bit nervous” about reopening her shoe shop on Monday. Solemates Footwear on Queen Street has been shut since 24 March, with all staff placed on furlough. Now, Lidster is hoping hand sanitiser, tills with Perspex screens, social distancing measures and disposable socks will be enough to keep her – and her customers – safe.
“Part of you feels that you’ve just got to get through it and get on with it,” she told the Observer. Only three people will be allowed in at a time. Shoes that customers try on but do not purchase will be removed from the stock that’s available to buy for at least two days. But Lidster is not planning to wear a face mask and won’t expect her customers to do so. “I just think you’ve got to be sensible, keep your distance and sanitise your hands.”
After nearly three months without any income from the shop and three furloughed staff to support, the future of her business depends on the return of consumer confidence. “I got a grant from the council, which was very helpful. But as soon as we reopen, I will have to pay my bills. Hopefully, the people of Ripon and the villages in the surrounding area will support us and come back.”
Just down the road, on Moss Arcade, Stephen Craggs is hoping the same thing. His parents started G Craggs electrical store 55 years ago but he has run it with his brother John since the 1990s, employing six staff. Most of them were placed on furlough in March but the two brothers have been working round the clock to keep their business going by taking orders online and over the telephone. Demand for bread makers, freezers and hair trimmers has increased during the lockdown – but overall, sales are down 50%.
“It has been physically and emotionally exhausting,” said Craggs. “I’ve had lots of sleepless nights worrying about the future and the viability of the business.”
He is reopening the shop on Monday to no more than three customers at a time, all of whom will have to ring the doorbell and use hand sanitiser before they can come in. But he is sceptical about whether high street shops reopening will herald a return to normal consumer spending patterns. “Just because the shops are open, it doesn’t mean that things are all rosy. Lots of people are still on furlough, worried about their future and their jobs. We are on the precipice of something awful.”
The brothers have tried to support their community by donating fridges and freezers to food banks and hospitals, and bought PPE so they could continue to deliver and install essential items such as washing machines and cookers. “People have been appreciative of that. And that’s not going to change, just because we’re allowed to reopen the shop. We’re in this situation for the long haul: at least a year or two.”
A five-minute walk away, on Westgate, Gill Edwards is feeling both nervous and excited about reopening the Ripon Bookshop this week. For the past three months, she and her daughters have been working almost fulltime, offering free deliveries of books to local customers. Although sales have dropped to 30% of normal levels, she has managed to keep afloat. “A bookshop in the city makes a huge difference to lots of local people – they are delighted to support us, and we are relieved they feel that way.”
When the shop reopens, browsing books will be allowed, as customers will be asked to sanitise their hands when they enter. “I think it’s quite hard to buy books without picking them up.”
As an independent “bricks and mortar” bookshop, she is amazed by how much business she has been able to generate online during lockdown, for example by hosting book club meetings over Zoom. “We’ve been fighting a battle [with online booksellers], and now we’ve realised we can do it too. We can take our business in different directions – as well as providing a base on the high street for the community, we can offer more.”
Less than 100 yards away, Caroline Lodge is also planning to open her fabric, paint and furniture shop, Rosie and Clover, this week. Business has been brisk during lockdown, as her customers have had more time for DIY projects. So she is planning to reduce her opening hours and carry on working from home two days a week. “I’m only going to open the shop Wednesday to Saturday, so I can have Monday and Tuesday to paint furniture and keep on top of the demand for it.”
During opening hours, customers will need to make an appointment to view her fabrics and furniture in person, and will be offered gloves and a face mask to wear. Lodge is planning to wear a face covering and spend up to 15 minutes cleaning the shop between appointments. “It’s going to be relentless – but then again, I don’t know how busy I’m going to be. Initially, it might be really quiet while people work up the nerve to come out.”
She says she feels apprehensive about the opening. “Until I start the process, I don’t know what I’m going to be faced with.”
Richard Mudd is looking forward to reopening Appleton’s butchers fully this week, for the first time since lockdown, and getting back to his his normal working hours. Staff will be protected by Perspex screens and only two people will be allowed in at a time, with markings on the floor so they can obey the two-metre rule. He is expecting long queues. “We’ve got a lot of loyal customers that travel for miles, just to get their pork pies from us,” he said. “This shop has been here for over 150 years.” The lockdown has threatened its survival. “We’re hoping that takings will go up and demand will go back to normal.”
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