She Lost 60% of Her Business in One Week

Imagine your small business lost £300,000 ($405,000) of orders in just one week. Karen Woolven can tell you all about it.

Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, she had a successful independent floral shop in southeast London, with some 60 percent of her income coming from weddings and corporate events. She’d supply flowers to the grand livery halls and banking houses in the City of London, and decorate around 200 corporate dinners and award ceremonies a year. For this year she had 32 weddings booked, the calendar full through September.
 
Then Italy shut its borders just before Mother’s Day, held on March 22 in the U.K.. “We were starting to get a little bit nervous,” says Woolven, 47, whoopened her shop in Greenwich eight years ago. Besides worrying about sourcing flowers from continental Europe, she feared lockdowns could come to the U.K. and hit her key sources of income.

She was right: in the week before that Sunday, every corporate client she held cancelled their orders for 2020. “Brides and grooms started panicking and moving their weddings,” she says. Regular clients, including restaurants, offices and bars that she’d supply vases of flowers to on a weekly basis, also began cutting contracts. At one point she was so upset she refused to answer the phone, knowing the bad news of another cancellation coming in.

That left retail sales as Woolven’s last hope. Previously, shop sales were nothing more than cashflow for the business, the income used to pay the family-owned wholesalers on time. (Woolven refused to take credit with suppliers for more than seven days, believing they should be paid promptly.) Now it was a lifeline. But that too came with a twist. The U.K.’s first lockdown, announced March 23, left Woolven with £2,000 of fresh flowers on hand. She fulfilled existing orders and gave others away for free. “That was heartbreaking,” she says.

Britain—the mythical nation of shopkeepers—isn’t alone in losing businesses but the pandemic has been devastating. Independent retail lost 1,800 companies net across the U.K. in the first half of 2020, according toa report from the Local Data Company and PwC. Across all retail, including chain stores, U.K. high streets had 6,000 fewer stores in the first six months of the year—a near doubling of the decline compared to 2019.

For a while Woolven furloughed her staff and sat at home catching up on paperwork. But after a key aide to U.K. Prime Minster Boris Johnson broke lockdown rules, she returned to work, fulfilling online orders with a handful of part-time staff.

Some relief came when the governmentallowed weddings to take place with limited numbers in the summer, but flip-flops on the decision lost her business. Retailers were rebuilding when the government pulled weddings. “Because there’s no roadmap for weddings and events, there’s a massive lack of confidence in the industry.”

When the U.K. returned to a nationwide lockdown in November, Woolven had had enough.The butcher two doors away, which could stay open as an essential retailer, agreed to display and sell her flowers from its storefront. Cafes in Surrey Quays, three miles west of her shop, sold her houseplants in the space left by removing tables to adhere to social distancing rules. In the meantime, Woolven and her smaller staff worked behind closed doors, fulfilling internet orders.

“We had no choice,” she says. “We had to keep the business going.”

With London entering the highest tier of restrictions, it seems likely that arrangement will continue—though it would even if things returned to normal tomorrow, says Woolven. “We’ve built up good relationships with the other businesses, and it gives them a bit of an income from commission,” she says. 

More Small Business lockdown stories:
A Rare Lockdown Retail Success Story
The Pandemic Took His Business. So He Started Over

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