Covid-19: A Tuesday afternoon shopping in Didsbury Village

It’s Tuesday afternoon in Didsbury Village, but under the spring sunshine there’s no-one sitting in the pub beer gardens. The coffee shops and cafes are temporarily closed, and most retail stores are shut to the public.

Usually locals would be going about their business in this well-heeled part of south Manchester, intermixed with university students embarking on some post-Easter holiday afternoon drinking, or chatting over coffee and cake.

The quieter scene is reminiscent of local commercial centres and communities across the UK, as the nation finds itself in the fifth week of government-imposed lockdown.

Amanda Alexander, who runs children’s toy shop Giddy Goat Toys at 2 Albert Hill Street, would usually be enjoying her regular Tuesday afternoon off. Instead, with two part-time members of staff furloughed, she is inside her locked store, packing 20-30 boxes a day to fulfil what has been a welcome healthy level of eCommerce orders.

Alexander says she’s aware how lucky she is. Demand for toys, stationery, and crafts has been strong, as parents look to entertain children at home, and her partnerships with online marketplace Down Your High Street (DYHS), and buy now, pay later platform Clearpay have been vital. The latter was only recently formalised.

Amanda Alexander, owner of Giddy Goat Toys in Didsbury Village
Amanda Alexander, owner of Giddy Goat Toys in Didsbury Village

“If the crisis and subsequent store closures had happened two months before, I’m not sure what my business would have done,” she states, adding target revenue has held up despite closing the store.

“I don’t know I would have survived, but because I’m on DYHS and Clearpay I’m still going.”

Alongside working longer than usual days, Alexander is using this time to implement Vend’s point of sale technology, which ultimately will bring online and in-store inventory onto one platform.

“I’ll have a new stock management system so I’ll be able to get more items onto the website,” she comments. “I think there will be more online shopping after this crisis.”

A stone’s throw away, the doors to women’s fashion boutique Kjole are also closed to the public, but co-owner Julie Powell is making daily trips from her home to pick, pack and prepare online orders.

Kjole has its own website, but interest in the brand also continues via independent fashion retail online aggregators Atterley and Trouva.

“From a fashion perspective the virus probably couldn’t have come at a worse time,” she notes, explaining the spring collection arrived at Kjole two weeks before lockdown, accompanied by a host of supplier bills.

Foreseeing the future lockdown, Powell and co-owner Shilpa Lindley offered all new stock at half price to loyal customers. Discounts have since been extended to all consumers, while the business has launched a successful try-at-home service, which it now expects will become a permanent fixture.

Powell is awaiting the arrival of the £10,000 small business rates benefit from government. “It’s the difference between survival or not,” she says.

Kjole in Didsbury Village is trialling new services during the lockdown
Kjole in Didsbury Village is trialling new services during the lockdown

Around the corner, on Wilmslow Road, the main thoroughfare leading to Manchester city centre, is The Cheese Hamlet. Alongside nearby Aldi, Marks & Spencer Simply Food, and Boots, it is one of a few ‘essential’ local shops still permitting visitors.

John Axon, owner of the gourmet deli, and leader of Didsbury Traders Association, is collecting supplies himself, and personally delivering goods to vulnerable customers.

“Only allowing two customers at a time into the store and not being able to stock up on the shop floor when we have customers present is also creating its own issues, and adding a couple of hours onto each day,” he comments, acknowledging trade is good.

Disruption and distress

A four-minute walk south, business at Jo Padmore eyewear has “effectively stopped”, according to the eponymous owner – although she remains busy. As an ‘essential’ retailer, she could remain open, but has closed the shop to focus on triage via the phone.

Padmore is in the store each day, though, serving those collecting orders in an appropriately socially distant manner, and she also delivers on foot to local residences.

In between taking customer calls at home while trying to serve dinner to her children, seeking more personal protective equipment, and tuning into webinars on the new requirements for opticians once lockdown lifts, she is keeping operations ticking over.

“With staff furloughed, I’m trying to do everyone’s job by myself – it’s hard work,” Padmore notes, and she’s still awaiting the grant promised to those with retail premises.

A ten-minute walk up Wilmslow Road is pizza restaurant Croma, where the future is perhaps more unclear.

Managing partner for Croma Didsbury, Michael Baker, worries what life after lockdown will look like. Will people still want to dine out? To what extent should it reopen? When will that even be?

Covers at Croma dipped as early as February, as consumer caution surrounding the virus began. The business closed completely for three weeks on 23 March, before restarting only on Deliveroo.

“It’s a sticking plaster – it’s plastering over an injury, not the cure,” he says. Croma’s Deliveroo sales are higher than usual, but only equate to around 20% of total sales expected for this time of year.

There’s a substantial al-fresco area at Croma, and, in normal times, Baker and the team would have just enjoyed a busy lunch period and be gearing up for a full evening, “rather than sat at home thinking about the future”.

The popular Croma Didsbury restaurant in busier pre-lockdown times
The popular Croma Didsbury restaurant in busier pre-lockdown times

Government support

On Monday, UK chancellor Rishi Sunak said over 140,000 companies applied to the government’s job furlough scheme. It was the first day of applications, and many more claims are expected in the weeks ahead, including from Didsbury’s traders.

Baker, whose concern for the future is clear, is reluctant to criticise government for how it has responded to businesses’ needs.

“They’ve come up with loads of packages overnight from scratch, but some are working better than others,” he notes, explaining its over two weeks since Croma applied for the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS). It is still awaiting a response.

“In terms of banks letting the money loose, CBILS isn’t as quick as it should be – if we didn’t have cash in the business we’d be in serious difficulty.”

Baker says hospitality was the industry to be affected first by the government-imposed closures, and it will “likely be the last to get back on its feet”. He adds: “Probably, without the CBILS we’ll struggle to get through this,” he adds, more gravely.

Long-term impact

All the traders speaking to us don’t expect the business landscape, and consumer behaviour to return to how it was, once lockdown is lifted.

The latest Barclaycard research suggests 55% of Britons want to increase their support of nearby businesses as a result of the lockdown – primarily by visiting local shops and markets when they can do so again. However, business intelligence group, GlobalData, says future consumer sentiment is at its lowest since it began tracking it.

Business communities, in Didsbury and across the UK, are looking forward to shops, pubs, eateries, and local services ramping up again, but how that will look and the level of consumer spend accompanying it is the great unknown.