Essex: 'This Christmas is vital to independent shops'

By Richard Daniel & Rachael McMenemy
BBC News

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High street retailers hope for a good Christmas to help for the periods they were closed during the pandemic

Christmas is less than a month away and Covid restrictions have been largely lifted for months, but things have not returned to normal for many high street businesses.

In Essex, the county council is concerned about post-pandemic recovery and invited retailers to share their experiences at a business summit. So what has changed for them and what comes next?

'We need to pay our bills'

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Business owner Kaye Thurgood says she is very worried about the next two years

Kaye Thurgood runs Sincerely Yours, two card and gift shops in in Shenfield and Hornchurch.

She worries without more government support her business may not survive to see another Christmas.

"This Christmas is vital, we need to be able to pay all of our bills to stay in business," she says.

Rising costs including energy bills mean she is feeling pressure from all sides and the uncertainty is worrying, she says.

"It's that tight because we don't know how much the increase in supplier cost and wage cost is going to hit us, and we don't know what's going to happen with business rates going forward.

"We need the government to sit up and take notice. Unless people are living and breathing this on a daily basis, like retailers are, we are there every day speaking to customers. The community does want community shops to be there."

'I don't think any business is out of the woods'

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Geraldine Smith, who runs a deli and tearoom in Chelmsford, says planning ahead has become harder

Geraldine Smith runs Stewart's Deli and Tearoom in Chelmsford and says her customer numbers are down a quarter on pre-pandemic levels.

Her trade is unpredictable and she believes a good Christmas is now vital, as planning for the future is more difficult.

She say: "I don't think any business is out of the woods.

"I think it's just a case of everybody understanding what it's like and customers being tolerant.

"Because everyone wants to shop locally and shop independently and we've got a long way to go yet."

'Shops will be new experiences'

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Ibrahim Ibrahim says businesses need to adapt physical stores as a way to market their brands

Ibrahim Ibrahim is the managing director of Portland Design and spoke to business owners about the challenges facing the high street.

He says the pandemic has accelerated change but that it does not mark the death of the high street, instead he thinks it is a time for reinventing it.

"The high street has got to kick its addiction to transactional retail," he says.

"Physical stores are becoming about recruitment i.e. recruiting and retaining customers and directing them to their website or social platforms. So increasingly the store becomes and behaves more like a media platform, a marketing platform."

He believes this change would have happened within the next five years but has been accelerated by the pandemic, which forced shops to shut and drove people online.

"I passionately believe the internet will not kill physical shops, it will liberate them to become new kinds of experiences and it will liberate our high streets to create real places with real life that are not just cookie cutter clone highstreets that have been one of the reasons for its decline," he says.

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