I have been so inspired to see so many businesses find new ways of serving their customers, thinking out of the box to come up with inventive solutions to keep trading and to enter 2021 with as much purpose and confidence as they could muster.
We cannot ignore the prediction of the London School of Economics, which warns than almost 1m (900,000) smaller UK businesses are at risk of imminent closure. ‘Micro’ businesses – those with fewer than 10 employees – are particularly in peril.
It is a tragedy that so many firms are in such a precarious position; we cannot ignore that. Our shopping thoroughfares and city centres still stand empty and echoing, with so many employees still working from home or on furlough.
The Chancellor’s Budget decision to extend the furlough scheme, which covers 80 per cent of the wages of 11 million people, until September, was taken for sensible reasons, but offers no succour to the coffee shops and newspaper sellers and dry cleaners and myriad other small businesses which rely on the constant trade of workers and commuters.
We know that come September, mothballed businesses face a huge reckoning. Strong fears are growing that untold numbers of those furloughed jobs may disappear forever.
What then of the businesses already either temporarily closed or struggling to survive? What of our travel companies, thrown from pillar to post by constantly shifting directives and draconian fines of £5,000 now imposed on individuals who leave the country without good reason?
What of our hotels, large and small, all reliant on business travellers and domestic and overseas tourists? There would seem to be precious little answer from any government minister to these particular coronavirus conundrums.
Yet, amidst all the fear and uncertainty it becomes ever more apparent that the pandemic has encouraged forward-thinking companies to repurpose, reconsider and redirect where they can. I was speaking the other day to a Yorkshire manufacturer of modular garden buildings which has diversified into the burgeoning ‘eldercare’ market. They’ve spotted a huge gap in the market for an alternative to care homes for older and vulnerable family members, devising easily-accessible ‘pods’ which can be sited in the garden of a main home, allowing independence and support as required. The managing director says that enquiries have increased 153 per cent in a year. If you take this to its logical conclusion, it means a whole new sector has the potential and client base to develop, bringing jobs and investment to our region.
The family-owned boarding kennels we use for our dog has been similarly innovative. Bereft of canine guests – apart from those in situ because their owners are ill or working long hours in key worker jobs – it was facing the biggest financial challenge in its history. And then the lightbulb moment dawned; the field next door has been turned into a free-running ‘doggie park’ where owners can bring their pets to gambol safely off-lead in a secure environment for a fiver for 25 minutes. It’s a genius idea, as it taps into the huge increase in dog-ownership during the pandemic and provides an outlet for dogs which are missing out on formal training and socialising. They’re booked out every day and intend to make the field a permanent feature of the business.
The hospitality trade, an absolute mainstay of our regional economy, has proved itself particularly inventive. I’ve been so impressed to see so many pubs, bars and restaurants diverting to takeaway and delivery services. We’ve even had a new café, Wheelers and Walkers, open in our village in September; it’s doing a roaring trade in takeaways, tapping into the scores of people who are out and about exercising in the fresh air. You’ve got to take your (woolly) hat off to the two women who own it for their courage in the face of adversity.
Similarly, we’ve picked up Sunday dinners to go from what’s reputed to be one of the oldest pubs in England, the Mill of the Black Monks here in Barnsley, enjoyed specially-devised boxes of cakes and afternoon teas from a number of cafés and even sampled a cocktail or two from a local bar in town, delivered with safe social distancing to our door. In what used to be ‘normal’ times I would berate my two teenagers for pestering me to order them takeaway food at the tap of an app, but even this old dinosaur has come round to their way of thinking now. Our world has certainly changed, and so have we, for better and for worse.
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