We may be under lockdown but human ingenuity is not out the window. Quite the opposite, in fact.

The current coronavirus pandemic has been sending shock waves across the globe. We are not only being confronted with the incalculable human loss, but we are also being presented with the sobering economic cost.

Not a day goes by without the media covering some form of economic news, current and forecasted, painting a gloomy picture. From alarming Bank of England reports stating that we could face the worst economic slump in 300 years to a ONS survey conducted in April showing that nearly 60 per cent of businesses have suffered falls in sales since mid-March. Businesses, large and small, are by no means immune to the virus’ effects. 

But with small businesses’ greater sensitivity to market changes, what of their much-needed survival? They contribute hugely to job creation in the UK and account for 60 per cent of all private-sector employment. Many colourfully decorate our high streets and, unlike their corporate cousins, we see the faces and meet the characters behind them. Efforts to contain the virus have led to the closing of bricks and mortar and to see them struggle feels personal to the communities in which they serve. 

Observing optimism 

Though small businesses are struggling, there is still room for optimism. Looking around my local area of Kennington and its various independent shops and restaurants, I have witnessed differing responses to the lockdown. Two favoured restaurants have taken different approaches: one has turned itself into a take away, while the other has deftly transformed itself into a quasi-farmers’ market. My local bakery shut up shop but continues to do a good trade from the kitchen at the back. Then there is a local florist who ‘put a notice in the window’ for customers to email her for orders. I contacted all four businesses requesting to speak to them about their experiences. Only the florist was open to interview — perhaps a mark of the heightened sensitivities people are feeling at this present time.

Flower power

Speaking to Mary Woolcot, owner of Windmill Flowers, positioned in the quaintly named Windmill Row, it became clear that this pandemic has pushed her to focus on customer retention and growth more than ever. Despite trading in Kennington for almost ten years and having built up a loyal local customer base, the pandemic has resulted in ‘a big slump in income’ and seen her apply for government business support. This ‘provides comfort in knowing that that the rent will be paid’ but it cannot be the long-term coping strategy. Unlike other fellow florists who supply hotels and restaurants, Mary’s business focuses on individual custom which, in some ways, has afforded her some protection. ‘[D]emand is still there’ she is keen to tell me but this, she has realised, is not enough to keep competition at bay. A ‘bone of contention’ has come from stores such as Tesco who remain open due to their ‘essential’ status and thus, can continue to sell flowers. This, she declares, ‘has made me realise that I need to be more aggressive with my website … I need a stronger online presence’. The last few weeks has seen her speaking to web designers to ‘generate more online orders’.

But the pandemic has also brought to the fore a key distinguishing feature: bespoke floral service. Flower buying is a sensory experience, I point out, so how can she still deliver a bespoke service online? ‘I always follow up with a phone call to find out if the bouquet is for anything in particular’. Will that not be more labour-intensive when business picks up, I ask. She doesn’t think so, hoping that her enhanced online presence will lead to more orders, and the hiring of more people to help out.

She also contests her ‘non-essential’ status. She has seen a surge in funeral flower orders, crucial at such sorrowful occasions. In this sense, she views her business as serving a more meaningful purpose than purely decorative. 

Mary is also giving her business thought for when we enter a ‘new normal’. Hitherto, many orders have been through floral delivery companies which take 20 per cent of the cut. But by increasing her online presence, she poses assertively, ‘why can’t I do [that] on my own with my own website?’ I sense the pandemic has given Mary greater business clarity. It has forced her to hone in on an underexploited area. Her new-found confidence will hopefully see her through this trying time, giving her business a greater chance to flourish.

Flour power

It isn’t only current business owners who are adapting during the crisis. It may seem a wild idea to set up a business given such circumstances, but that is just what Pippa Morris has done with her new business: Balham Bakes. Her ‘dream of having a bakery’ for a long time seemed to be just that, but with the extra time on her hands she has been able to revisit this dream. With all local bakeries closing, Pippa saw it as ‘a good opportunity to try out my idea on a small scale’ and serve the local community with homemade baked goods. Aside from the sugar high — a definite feel-good factor — a percentage of her profits goes the NHS.

Instagram, initially, helped her to grow her customer base but it was an encounter with Balham Newsie that saw Pippa’s followers ‘more than double overnight’. For all the marketing wonders that Instagram offers fledging businesses, it only goes so far. ‘A lot of people ask me if I have a website to look at … they don’t fully trust Instagram’. The initial sales she received through Instagram however are being reinvested in the business, with a focus on building a website and marketing. 

It isn’t just marketing and web design skills which she has procured. Seeing her business come to life from concept to creation through to customer sales has taught her much about the small business strategy. Especially, when it comes to balancing her books, something that has been a particular challenge as her key ingredient, flour, has been in high demand. Excel has provided her with a means to track orders and income, enabling Pippa to ‘become an Excel wizard’. Alongside Excel, she has developed ‘a whole new range of IT skills that I didn’t know existed at all’. These newfound skills she has transferred to her day job which, she states, she feels very fortunate to still have.  

To start a business is always an uphill battle but in an already difficult financial climate, what have been her key challenges? Pippa ruminates. Aside from obtaining flour, working around her current job and increasing Balham Bakes’ profile (so no biggies there then), the real challenge, she asserts, will come post-pandemic. It isn’t just the loss of ease which she currently has to work around her job, but also the competition of other bakeries reopening that will prove the hardest. She is already planning ahead to counter this. When the lockdown eases, people will want to gather with family and friends and she ‘hopes to adapt into that market and cater’ for these celebrations by offering a range of desserts. 

Pippa’s dream of owning a bakery could very well become a reality. She hopes that it will be ‘the start of another career opportunity’. If she goes from city worker to baker, that would be the ultimate in shapeshifting success stories during this pandemic.

Survival of the most adaptable

Speaking to both Mary and Pippa, I sense that this pandemic has spurned them on to realise new heights for their businesses and dreams. While they are only two examples, they demonstrate that with forethought, confidence and determination, businesses, new and established, can adapt to the challenges faced, affirming that oft-hailed agility and dynamism. This flexibility allows them to serve communities more immediately where larger corporations have failed.

Small businesses are vital components of a healthy economic ecosystem and they will no doubt be at the heart of its economic recovery. While writing this article, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Charles Darwin’s widely quoted phrase:

‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives … It is the one that is most adaptable to change’.

And for small businesses facing such testing economic times, this has never rung more true. It really will be survival of the most adaptable.

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