Business in the Market Place carries on during lockdown

Oundle was still in recovery mode after the first covid lockdown during the spring, when businesses once again faced closure for a second lockdown in November.

The first lockdown lasted for more than four months, bringing the Market Place to a halt. Social activities ceased, businesses closed and demand for goods and services was deferred. The government distributed various grants, loans and payment holidays for businesses, which helped to cushion the impact. But according to shop owners in Oundle, it has been the community who has supported local shops wherever possible that has kept local businesses on the road to recovery.

Across the two lockdowns, businesses met demand by adapting to new requirements. Stu-Pots stayed open because some of the products and services the shop supplies are considered essential. Shop owner Stuart Blow also provided area-wide deliveries as far as Laxton, which he felt gave customers more confidence in using the shop. A government grant as well as an understanding landlord helped with the finances. According to Mr. Blow, “Overall I have had some much-needed help from government, and my customers have been marvellous in their support.”

Judy Hibbins at Crackers has been in business since the 1980s and has seen some difficult times. Her shop, which originally sold clothes, was called Country Clubbers before it closed. “We didn’t do well with clothes and changed it to Crackers, because my husband said we were bloody crackers for staying!”

She was very concerned about the second lockdown in the run-up to the key Christmas season when she had a lot of new Christmas stock to sell. She felt decisions were arbitrary with regards to what shops were allowed to remain open. “It’s the injustice that gets to me. For instance, supermarkets can stay open and sell gifts, garden centres can stock and sell everything that I sell.” She tried out a new online click-and-collect service with her window as the pick-up point.

The lockdowns have proved to be the biggest challenge to deal with during her years, but she is optimistic. “We’re just lucky where we live. The local customers have been amazing,” she said brightly. “It’s making us resilient.”

The knitting and sewing community were disappointed to see Oundle in Stitches close at the end of August after more than 30 years in the Market Place. The owner, who had bought the business ten years ago, said that when her lease expired in August it coincided with plans to retire. But the uncertainty of the business climate meant she did not have second thoughts. “You wouldn’t renew a lease in this environment. It’s too uncertain.”

One of the hardest hit businesses has been the Bridal Gallery on West Street. After an entire season of planned weddings was postponed, owner Martin Charles can only wait for wedding events to begin again in the spring and summer. In the meantime he has kept busy putting his tailoring skills to good use, offering a high-quality alteration service, as well as making covid masks available for sale at his shop.

Another sector that took a huge hit in the pandemic was tourism. It might feel as if the days of travelling freely are gone, but according to Paula Cockcroft, director of Oundle Travel, “Things have changed and they are doing so every day that passes.” She remains positive about the rebound of demand after the crisis. “The good news is that the desire to travel has not left us. It will improve quickly and many more countries will open in the months to come.” Oundle Travel introduced a dedicated concierge service that will concentrate on vital Foreign and Commonwealth Office updates and a new customer loyalty scheme. Combined with the company’s 36 years of experience, the services aim to give her clients confidence about travelling. “This, together with new flexible booking options with our preferred partners, gives clients complete peace of mind when booking,” said Ms Cockcroft.

For cafes and restaurants the lockdowns, partial openings and reopenings have meant months of instability and uncertainty about revenue. For Phil Gilbert, owner of Beans, “It was a huge relief when we finally decided to reopen for takeaway in late May.” He provided take away services, which met more demand than expected. It was reasonably good for the rest of the summer and into the autumn when he found business was quite busy at times. However, the November lockdown was more challenging. The only service he could offer was take-aways, which were less in demand with the colder weather.

The pandemic and lockdowns have changed people’s outlook about home and work, and as a result the property market has been stable so far. Having remained open for the November lockdown, estate agent Chris Woodford said: “The local market has been super strong, with a slight increase in prices.” He has seen interest in property across the price range, particularly in the town centre, and has sold a lot of village property. This is attributed to the pent-up demand after the first lockdown and the stamp duty holiday that bolstered the market. According to Mr Woodford: “I think people have analysed how they live and how they want to live.”

But looking forward, he said, “It’s really hard to know what is going to happen next year.” Though he saw slight cooling in the market in November, that could be seasonal or due to some “gathering clouds on the horizon”. He predicted that the stamp duty holiday will be extended for perhaps another three months, which would be able to keep the market moving, help the country out and “kick start the property market earlier than usual in the new year”.

“It will be a very interesting time,” he concluded.

Cherry Yang
1 December 2020