Current Affairs

Oxford businesses adjust to a new normal

For many, ‘the new normal’ is a beloved and much-vaunted phrase these days. After months of disruption and, for some, unimaginable pain, a quest to recover a kind of normality in the UK is underway.

Yet it is a quest that recognises how different this ‘new normal’ looks. While coronavirus is still at large and experts warn of the potential risk of a second wave of COVID-19 in the UK, nothing can truly be the same.

Shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants in Oxford are adjusting to these new circumstances as they grapple with the challenges posed by reopening after a prolonged period of disruption and difficulty.

In late March, Boris Johnson ordered all “non-essential” shops to close as part of the lockdown strategy implemented by the UK government. While many businesses were able to continue trading online throughout the lockdown, others saw their income entirely cut off for weeks. For many consumers, supermarkets and pharmacies were the only shops that they were able to visit for months.

On 15 June, those “non-essential” shops – including gift shops, indoor markets and clothes shops – were finally allowed to re-open again.

A month on, local businesses of all shapes and sizes are rethinking the way they serve their customers and engage with the wider community. They are also learning to live with the long-term financial impact of the lockdown period which, for many, has been catastrophic. Yet every business has been on a different journey, and things are not all bad. In fact, for many businesses, coronavirus has also represented a chance to solidify their place in the local community and strengthen their relationship with customers old and new.

The Oxford Blue spoke to Sarah Wearden at Indigo Oxford, an independent sustainable and natural living shop on Cowley Road which sells clothing, home wear, gifts and stationery.

Indigo reopened on 15 June. “It was really quiet for the first couple of weeks”, Wearden explains, “but now it’s picking up quite a lot, as customers become more confident with entering shops”. Indigo has had to make necessary adjustments, maximising its use of social media and an online presence and making it mandatory to wear a mask in the shop to try boost footfall.

Indigo has been supported by the Treasury’s furlough scheme – which Wearden calls “brilliant” – as well as a £10,000 government grant which covered rent and other overheads. Yet things are still uncertain. “We do need some extra help now”, Wearden says.

Throughout the lockdown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, has offered financial support for businesses large and small as part of an unprecedented package of economic relief measures . Support schemes include the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme, the Bounce Back Loan Scheme, the Retail, Hospitality and Leisure Grant Fund, and the Small Business Grant Fund.

Many businesses – including cafes, pubs and restaurants – were also able to operate through takeaway and delivery services, but others saw all revenue disappear during lockdown . Research by the data analyst Beauhurst in April found that 1 in 10 new businesses and start-ups in Oxford were “severely or critically at risk” of failure because of coronavirus and its social distancing measures, the Witney Gazette has reported.

Even on a recent visit to the Covered Market in the city centre, Wearden was “really surprised” at how quiet things were despite the easing of strict lockdown rules. “I feel for these independents – without tourists and students, it’s going to be tough to cover overheads”.

Rent has also posed a big challenge for businesses – independent or otherwise – in Oxford, and Wearden explains that many have been “talking together” about how to deal with paying rental costs after months of little or no income. Some local business owners have felt frustrated about what they see as high rents charged by the City Council throughout the lockdown period, but private landlords have also come in for much criticism.

Wearden is unequivocal about what needs to happen: “rents have got to come down”.

Nevertheless, Wearden believes that big High Street chains will face the biggest uphill struggle over the coming months. Not only will many wish to support smaller independent businesses, there will be widespread fears about entering public spaces through which large numbers of people pass every day. Wearden predicts that many consumers will choose to shop local instead of travelling to retail parks or bigger towns and cities where major companies have branches.

That said, the timing of reopening will be difficult for all Oxford businesses, with international tourism at a standstill and students not set to return to Oxford until at least October. “Students form a large part of of Oxford community”, Wearden explains, “and so summer can be a quiet time for some businesses”.

Nevertheless, there is much optimism about the future of Indigo Oxford. “It’s Indigo’s time now, being a sustainable, ethical shop. There has been a rise of more people moving towards conscious consumerism, buying less and buying better quality products that last,” Wearden says. “We’ve had time to think about the importance of the health of our planet and of each other.”

“People have got used to shopping locally in lockdown, and we’ve got to support who we want to see survive – we need healthy habits and healthy business. This is all about community”.

The Oxford Blue also spoke to David Kelly, the Sales Manager at Blackwell’s Oxford on Broad Street. Blackwell’s is a chain of bookshops, founded in Oxford in 1879, that has expanded to 45 UK stores since the 1990s.

At the Oxford branch, the furlough scheme was a “huge support” which, Kelly explains, “ensured that all our staff remained employed and paid whilst we worked towards getting the shop back to normal”.

Blackwell’s Oxford re-opened “as soon as we were able to”, on the same day as Indigo. Throughout the lockdown, the online bookshop had been in operation and the Broad Street branch was part of the supply chain. “The shop is now fully open with all our services and even some new ones. All floors of the bookshop and music shop are open and whilst our Art and Westgate shops have not re-opened yet, we have moved some of their best stock to Broad Street until they are able to,”, Kelly says.

Blackwell’s have also started a weekly board game café, restarted local deliveries and established “book doctor sessions for adults and children” as well as treasure hunts around the city. “Essentially, everything we planned to do this year is now being crammed into the last six months of the year.”

Asked about the adjustments that the store has had to make  to accommodate social distancing and hygiene guidelines, Kelly explains how it was important that the shop was “still a lovely, friendly and relaxing sanctuary for people”. “I think we’ve achieved it and the feedback has been wonderful”, he adds.

Those adjustments include a browsed book trolley – “so that people could browse anything confidently, knowing that the books would be cleaned and reshelved afterwards” – and a “thank you table” for free books for customers.

Speaking about the future of Blackwell’s Oxford, Kelly says: “In our personal and professional lives we need to stay sensible and cautious but we need to retain our optimism. We’ve seen enough incredible human spirit over the last few months and we need to celebrate and harness that and look after one another.”

“The answer always lies in a book and I’d really recommend Rutgar Bregman’s new book ‘Humankind’ which shows a path to a great future for all through cooperation rather than competition.”

Nobody can predict exactly what the future holds for Oxford’s businesses – large or small. The UK’s journey out of the pandemic is ongoing, and many fear a second wave of COVID-19 and a new lockdown later in the year or at the start of 2021. It would presumably be more bad news for the UK economy, and for businesses of all shapes and sizes.

For now, businesses have had to learn to accommodate a ‘new normal’, while trying their best to do what they have always done. And amid the hardship and the uncertainty, it seems that there are reasons to be optimistic, even for the smallest of local businesses. Whether coronavirus transforms the way we shop and consume altogether remains to be seen, but things will be far from ‘normal’ for shops and businesses for a long time to come.

Oliver Shaw

Oliver (he/him) is the Senior Current Affairs Editor at The Oxford Blue for the summer vacation and Michaelmas 2020. Oliver lives in Warwickshire and is entering his final year studying History at Merton College.