It’s no secret by now that the coronavirus pandemic has left a huge dent in the UK retail industry. Despite this, and despite the three-month lockdown that followed shortly after the pandemic gripped the UK in March, independent retailers have found ways to adapt and thrive during these unprecedented times.
The Camden Watch Company – founded in 2014 by husband and wife team Anneke Short and Jerome Robert – is one such retailer.
Before the pandemic, footfall and in-store sales were the primary drivers of revenue for the indie retailer, although they had an online operation as well. This meant that Anneke and Jerome faced many challenges when lockdown restrictions meant that had to temporarily shut all three of their physical retail spaces in London.
“Around mid-March, we essentially watched our sales fall off a cliff, in store and online,” Anneke recalled.
“No one really knew what was happening or what kind of help (if any) we would get from the government or from our landlords.
“Navigating that period, communicating with our team and our customers when essentially we had none of the answers was really tough.”
“Around mid-March, we essentially watched our sales fall off a cliff”
Despite closing their doors, the Camden Watch company saw a rise in online sales. While the overall turnover was still significantly smaller than with stores open, the outgoings were heavily reduced. However, Anneke and Jerome were pleased by how well the website performed without the stores as back-up.
“It has been hugely reassuring and confirms that building up slowly, making sure we had strong foundations before growing too quickly has really been worth it,” Anneke said.
Trading in lockdown was different in general. Jerome visited the office once or twice a week to dispatch online orders and kept up to date on social media. Meanwhile, Anneke’s days revolved around either sorting through admin or designing, “which could be working on a new watch model, designing for the website, or like the other day, designing a protective screen for when our stores reopen”.
Anneke also said the government’s financial help for their business during this time was all welcomed.
“The furlough scheme, business rate deferral and grants have all been hugely useful and much appreciated,” she explained.
“However, a lot of businesses – particularly in London – have fallen even slightly outside the scope and so have been left high and dry.”
Anneke said that in terms of handling and communicating there was a lot more the government could have done.
“Before lockdown, telling customers to stay away but making stores stay open, and now imposing two weeks of quarantine,” she cited as an example.
“It’s not been great, and it’s going to be a tough few months for sure.”
Despite the challenges, there have been some positive moments amid the Covid-19 crisis.
“It has been amazing to see how people have rallied around us,” Anneke reflected.
“Customers old and new have been incredibly supportive and understanding, for example if parcels are taking longer to arrive or emails aren’t getting a reply straight away.”
“Right now, it’s not about thriving or growing the business, it’s about surviving”
When speaking to the Retail Gazette, the Camden Watch Company was preparing to reopen the doors to the Camden flagship in North London, now that non-essential retailers could exit lockdown.
“We’re working hard on making our stores Covid-proof, but at the same time we’re not going to rush into opening just because we’re allowed to,” Anneke said.
Screens will be installed as well as UV sanitisers for the watches and hand sanitiser for staff and customers.
“Above all it will be about creating a safe and happy environment for our team to work in and our customers to shop in,” she added.
Anneke also offered advice to other independent retail business owners who may be struggling at this time.
“Hang on in there,” she said.
“Reduce outgoings as much as possible and make sure you have enough cash to keep afloat until things start levelling out again.
“Communicate with your customers, be open and let them know where you’re at in terms of the business, you might just be surprised how people respond, in a good way.”
As the retailer sector starts to rebuild in a post-lockdown climate, the couple has set their goals for the future of Camden Watch Company.
“Short term is all about trying to get the stores open in the safest and best way possible,” Anneke said.
In the long-term, as well as working on releasing new models, they are brainstorming new ideas on how to make the Camden Watch Company experience as seamless as possible from online to in-store.