Oundle’s Market Place is lucky to have shops in its centre that offer essential services that have been able to remain open during the shutdown. The two pharmacies, Stu-pots, Trendalls, two supermarkets and the new limited Thursday market have kept the town ticking over. But scores of the remaining shops and businesses have closed and furloughed staff, balancing ongoing bills against a complete absence of revenue.
The government has set up grant funding schemes to help small businesses cope. With funds distributed by East Northamptonshire Council, 115 businesses in Oundle have benefited from grant funds, receiving cash grants of between £10,000 to £25,000. The government has also extended a 12-month business rates holiday for all retail and hospitality businesses. Concessions from landlords about rent remain a private agreement, but landlords have been advised to be aware of problems being faced by their tenants.
When the economy reopens, most shops will be able to adapt to long-term social distancing rules, but the big concern is about whether footfall will return to the Market Place if customers remain nervous about catching the virus, or lose patience with the delays and inconvenience of social distancing.
Oundle resident Marc Folgate had just set up his own law firm in October before he found himself putting up a closed sign in his Peterborough office six months later. His business specialises in injury and clinical negligence, and the demand has dried up. Not only have accidents declined, “Not a bad thing, do not get me wrong,” he says, but medical examinations are no longer available and the courts have closed. He remains determined to be positive as he sits this out. “If you work hard most of the time, treat this as way of recharging your batteries, ready for when it all becomes real again.”
Some businesses have been able to adapt their services to keep generating revenue as well as saving perishable stock.
Following the recent lifting of restrictions for hospitality businesses, restaurants are opening their kitchens for walk-in take aways.
Seven Wells Butchers closed their shop on West Street, and moved to home deliveries. This was considered the best way of encouraging customers to “stay home, stay safe”, as well as keeping staff safe, too. It will reopen on 2 June, but continue home deliveries.
The Barn Garden Centre was allowed to reopen on 13 May after eight weeks. But at the start of the lockdown, with thousands of plants at risk at the start of the planting season, the Wilson family were looking at potential ruin. However, the phone started ringing with customer requests for orders, and they realised there was still a demand that they could service. Using a very low-tech payment system and one delivery van, they made over 500 free deliveries.
Stephanie Wilson said: “These sales have helped and we have been thrilled to be able to offer our customers something. However, takings are down and in the coming months and years ahead, customers will have to support small businesses like ours all across Oundle to keep them trading.”