While some of the UK high street’s biggest names closed their doors for the first time in their histories, 168-year-old Williams of Audlem have kept theirs open throughout the whole Covid-19 crisis

Williams of Audlem in Crewe stayed open throughout the closure of non-essential shops because they have other elements to their business, including a newsagent and hardware offering. Owner Judy Evans shares her unique take on gift retailing in these tough times.

Judy, how was trading through lockdown?

Judy Evans

In the first few weeks it was extremely busy every morning, then much quieter in the afternoons. The phone rang almost constantly with customer queries and requests. It became difficult to get a consistent supply of household stock, and to respond to the numerous new orders for newspaper deliveries. That said, we were just so grateful to be open.

There has been little in the way of significant change for us at present; whereas some new customers appear to have already gone back to their old shopping habits, other customers are back from their isolation and/or shielding. We hope the travel restrictions being lifted means tourists will continue to grow in number.

How did sales of giftware go during this time?

Giftware sales were extremely slow in the early period of lock-down. Customers were reluctant to spend time browsing and there was a lot of uncertainty as to whether they were ‘allowed’ to purchase gifts at all.  By Father’s Day, things had markedly improved. We took a gamble on a large order of men’s bamboo socks from Miss Sparrow, and Father’s Day gadget gifts from new supplier CGB Giftware – which really paid off as demand was strong compared to a lacklustre Mother’s Day.

Did you have sufficient stock of gift and greetings?

We had a huge increase in greeting card sales. Abacus card agent, Danny Gratton was our absolute real hero – he came out to us at short notice one Sunday morning. Laura Sherratt Designs, Paper Salad, Tatty & Co. and Brain Box Candy also responded promptly.  Windhorse Ceramics supplied us with a fabulous range of very topical, rainbow tableware, and Shropshire based CJ Wildlife were instrumental in helping us keep up with the new army of twitchers! 

We did make several re-orders and new orders during this time, including scarves from Pure Fashions, and eco-soaps from the Friendly Soap Company. We also placed top up orders with Rosefields and Lua Ltd,

Williams of Audlem, interior

How helpful did you find Government guidelines and support?

Communication from the Government for those staying open has been poor – there was initially a great deal of confusion leading to a lot of misconceptions amongst our staff, customers and the general public. Things haven’t really improved as guidelines have continued to change for operating retail without clear communication that changes have been made. This has put the onus on businesses to keep themselves informed by constant checking of the Gov.UK web site.

Getting the SBRR grant was a Godsend to our business, as it gave us the confidence that we could carry on operating into the unknown. We feel totally humbled to have been so fortunate, but it seems almost to have been potluck. Government-based financial assistance doesn’t seem to have been applied either evenly, or logically across any industry.

Whilst I do not want to enter a political debate I am appalled at how many sectors, especially in the gift retail business, have been left without any proper financial support at all. Even reopening the doors has cost many companies a great deal of money in terms of complying with the new guidelines – where’s the money coming from for that? Cheap loans may have been available for some but they still need to be paid back – just at a time when we might well be heading for another recession, and after many have just about crawled out of the last one.

How did you find it dealing with staff and staffing levels?

Looking after the welfare of our staff has been our main priority. We issued them with PPE and quickly issued a statement that we would not be furloughing anyone, or cutting their hours. We also sent out a copy of the government guidelines on safe practice in retail shops, as opinions in the media were leading to confusion.

Did you make a priority of paying your suppliers?

Yes, and they were all very pleased, given that many retailers were either not in a position to pay, or may have been closed and therefore difficult to contact. Going forward, retailers should look at being more responsible and conscientious in their treatment of suppliers  – treating them more as partners and friends, than sometimes slaves and enemies! 

In addition it’s good old-fashioned budgeting practice to only buy what your business can afford – so why be mean and delay payments? If the pandemic has taught us anything it is that we’re stronger together, and we should look to form all manner of  ‘partnerships’ with every aspect of our business.  I am in total agreement with the ‘kinder retailing’ that Mary Portas has alluded to at recent trade fairs. 

How about social media?

Facebook has been really important for communicating information, and promoting our goods and services. The Giftware Association Community Facebook page has been a hugely useful resource to us; conveying information, advice, inspiration and a real sense of community during this dark time. I also found some new suppliers on there too! With hindsight we may well have benefited from having an online shopping presence, and we’re certainly exploring the concept of the Facebook page shop.

What about social distancing?

What is strange for us is that as the risks of Covid-19 have reduced over the weeks, safety procedures have increased. However, we have to be mindful that customer confidence has become more critical, so its still important that we not only comply with what is being asked of us as a retailer, but give customers the ability to feel safe while shopping in store.

We have been keeping to the two-metre rule since it started and we’ve had our shop door held permanently open, to improve ventilation and enable ‘no touch’ entry. We quickly introduced a self-serve drop box, and rearranged some of the shop fittings to improve flow, and facilitate safe browsing areas. We’ve been lucky and had PPE available for staff throughout since we’ve had access to it through our existing wholesalers. We’ve introduced two hand-sanitising points and done the necessary risk assessments. 

Plans for the rest of the year?

We’re going to knuckle down and concentrate on the build up to Christmas. Going forward, as retailers we need to be hoping for the best – but at the same time we should all preparing for the worst to get us through the next year. The words of Theo Paphitis at the last Autumn Fair are still ringing in my ears – that we all have to be prepared for challenges and change in retail, and the biggest are those that are not yet known to us.