When I opened my business almost three decades ago, I knew it was not going to be plain sailing.
Running a small business has never been easy and being part of a sector that comes under a lot of scrutiny (Halal butchers), we have always been used to emergency situations. Certain factors – from the ‘foot and mouth’ outbreak to public perception or media scrutiny of the Halal religious practice – means things in our trade can change overnight and you just keep going.
But we could never have planned for what we have seen in the past few weeks.
Small businesses up and down the country have faced the toughest challenge of their trading history, who was to know that there would come a time when we would close our doors to the local community to protect them and ourselves against a pandemic?
Usually, an open, thriving local high street keeps our community alive and present.
Being butchers and retailers, we were challenged from the outset due to the fact that we were one of the very few trades allowed to open, this meant finding the stock to sell, preparing our shops so that they are safe and asking our staff to risk their lives on a daily basis to sell our products, all when there was hardly any guidance on social distancing and hardly any resources were available to prepare us for these tasks.
We realised very early that this was not going to be an easy task; the stock we could get hold of was double the cost and our customers had already stocked up their freezers before the lockdown. Purchasing stock would be a huge business risk, but one that had to be taken.
The second emerging issue was that customers up and down the country were not understanding the sudden increase in price, referring to retailers like ourselves as opportunists and hikers. On the one hand, we had to stay open and trading to keep things going and on the other, customers were subjecting us to the worst scrutiny that we had ever seen. At one point we really lost heart and wanted to go home.
What kept us going was the opportunity to help others, participate in local causes. During the Islamic month of Ramadan, we saw an opportunity to help frontline staff in the NHS, police and emergency response services so we launched several campaigns to give back to those who gave to our neighbourhoods and communities.
Staying open to give gave us a reason to continue.
As customers realised we were now open and that the increase in price was a national phenomenon, there seemed to be two extremes to the situation we found ourselves in. Some customers were playing it safe, requesting socially distanced delivery with touch payments while others generally ignored the risk and were walking into our stores.
There was very little middle ground and this added to our vulnerability as a business, but we were ready to take this head on. Shop notices went up, self-made shields (from plastic A2 photo click frames) were installed and staff manned the doors with masks, disposable aprons and gloves. We became educators on the virus and handed out safety information to our customers.
Our suppliers continued to supply, and we managed to convince most of our customers that delivery was the best option. A new business opportunity was slowly emerging and suddenly we needed to respond. In the past few weeks, almost 70 per cent of our trade transferred into a phone order and delivery service, maybe a bit older fashioned than online ordering but hugely effective for the community we are dealing with.
We took advantage of the government grants and furloughed some staff members, meaning we retained them for a later date. We are pleased that our business rates have been cancelled for this year – at a time of this type of vulnerability, you need a government that understands business and can pull the right strings to get things moving again. I feel the government responded adequately and in a very timely manner, we can honestly say that had we not have had this support it would of been very difficult, maybe impossible to have seen this period through.
For most of my business life, I have advocated how small businesses should be supported by their local communities. The local high street has today proven its worth, in my case we acted as responders, advisors, helpers, contributors and then retailers too. So many people have shown their appreciation of our work; Google reviews and Facebook comments are testimony to how we helped in these testing and profoundly difficult times.
There is challenge but there is hope in equal measure. We have much to do, I want this all over now, we have found some new ways of trading but the uncertainty overshadows the intent to only think about money. We must all be safe and comfortable and then we can assess what we did well and what we could have done better.
What is important is that we remember our worth; sometimes it seems things will not work or we have met our end, the beauty of running your own show is that you can adapt, you can change and you have the ability to decide on your fate yourself. Covid-19 has changed many things and, for retailers, it has the potential to reinvent the local high street.
Abdul Malik is the owner of Pak Butchers
Main photo courtesy of Abdul Malik