Surviving COVID: The UK corner shop that came to the rescue
In central England, a family-run small-business is providing its community with the essentials as the global pandemic rages.
For nearly two decades, Jayendra Master woke early and assiduously served the customers who crossed the threshold of his corner shop from six in the morning until six in the evening.
Seven days a week, Master sold newspapers, pints of milk and loaves of bread, all the while slowly establishing the Wigston Fields News & Deli as part of the furniture in the quiet corner of Leicestershire, central England, it belonged to.
But in March, everything changed. The COVID-19 pandemic surged through the United Kingdom, forcing Master into self-isolation and prompting officials to implement an economy-freezing lockdown that threatened the future of his beloved business, as well as millions of others across the country.
Ripped from his usual spot behind the counter, the 66-year-old was forced to turn to his son, Pratik, who he tasked with fronting the family shop and steering it through the economic turbulence that lay ahead.
“He said to me, ‘Just please don’t let it go bankrupt,'” Pratik Master, 34, told Al Jazeera. “Dad had worked hard … and we did worry that without him there, we could destroy what had been created over the past 20-odd years.”
Now, as a new strain of the coronavirus surges through parts of the UK and regions of the country re-enter stricter lockdowns, the Masters are bracing themselves yet again as they “hope for the best, but plan for the worst”.
“We have to roll with the punches and are being proactive where we can,” Pratik said. “But there are so many bridges that we are having to cross at the moment that another one isn’t going to change anything – all we are going to need to do is just find a way of getting by.”
‘Needed, but not always wanted’
Just like the tens of thousands of other corner shops dotted alongside the roads in the UK, the Wigston Fields News & Deli has always relied on its surrounding neighbourhood to survive.
But that symbiosis has frayed in recent years, with many would-be customers lost to nearby supermarkets offering shoppers the chance to get all of their essentials, and much more besides, in one trip.
“A corner shop has always been needed by the community,” Pratik said. “But in some ways, it has not been wanted, and the biggest reason for that is because the supermarkets have hoovered up so much of the trade.”
The last nine months have been some of the most difficult that small firms have ever had to endure.
In a bid to reverse that trend and prevent the family business from collapsing amid a historic recession, Pratik and his wife, Bee, re-orientated the shop as the novel coronavirus tightened its grip on the UK and made shopping at large chain stores less attractive.
The pair innovated and adapted – using social media to get-in-touch with customers and take requests for goods while expanding delivery services to get essentials to those forced to remain inside their homes.
“We just kept asking the question, ‘What is it that you need?'” Pratik explained.
Customers quickly began asking the duo to source a range of items from flour to fresh juice, which would otherwise have required trips to crowded supermarkets that were struggling to keep their shelves full amid a wave of panic-buying.
“We started getting more and more things that people wanted and needed,” Pratik said.
As demand ramped up, locally-produced goods began to dominate the shop’s shelves.
“That’s where we created a unique selling point as almost a one-stop shop for local supply,” Pratik said, adding that the Wigston Fields News & Deli now stocks goods from more than 60 different local suppliers.
A nation of shopkeepers
The News & Deli’s transformation, meanwhile, reflects a renewed focus on sustainability and buying local in 2020 as communities huddle closer together during the COVID-19 crisis.
“Whereas before we were more focused on global supply chains, there was certainly an impetus to rethink more about local procurement and suppliers,” Ute Stephan, a professor of entrepreneurship at King’s College London, told Al Jazeera.
“That often tied with an increased community focus, as well,” she said.
We have to roll with the punches and are being proactive where we can. But there are so many bridges that we are having to cross at the moment that another one isn’t going to change anything – all we are going to need to do is just find a way of getting by.
Mike Cherry, national chair of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), a not-for-profit organisation representing the UK’s small and medium-sized businesses, added the pandemic had “increased consumer awareness of how and where people spend their money”.
“It’s no longer simply about finding the cheapest deal, it’s about contributing and supporting your local community,” he told Al Jazeera.
A so-called “nation of shopkeepers”, the UK is home to more than 5.8 million small businesses – defined as companies with up to 49 employees.
Small- and medium-sized firms make up 99.9 percent of the country’s entire business population, according to government figures (PDF), accounting for more than half of its private sector turnover and employing 16.6 million people.
Put simply, they are “the beating heart of the economy” and vital to its long-term recovery from COVID-19, according to Cherry.
But amid rising unemployment and a downturn expected to see the UK economy shrink by more than 11 percent in 2020 – the largest decline in 300 years – they are facing an unprecedented threat.
Many have been left struggling to survive amid the pandemic owing to the combined pressures of strict trading restrictions and two nationwide lockdowns, which forced many shops closed for months.
Despite the roll-out of historic government support packages, nearly two-thirds of entrepreneurs said their businesses may not survive the crisis when polled as part of a study (PDF) conducted by UK university King’s College London’s Business School during the height of the UK’s first national lockdown in March.
More than half of the 361 respondents also predicted they would run out of money within a year.
“The last nine months have been some of the most difficult that small firms have ever had to endure,” Cherry said. “This unprecedented turbulence saw 51 percent of small firms close at some stage of the first lockdown.”
‘We just keep going’
In Leicestershire, the Wigston Fields News & Deli was permitted to remain open throughout lockdowns one and two on account of its designation as an essential business.
While continuing to trade through the height of the pandemic has offered up opportunities for increased sales, it has also created challenges of its own, too.
“We’ve found that there’s been an increase in trade, but with a decrease in stability,” Pratik said.
For example, the shop is increasingly reliant on pre-orders at a time when customers may be unable to show up and actually complete their purchases.
Whereas before we were more focused on global supply chains, there was certainly an impetus to rethink more about local procurement and suppliers.
“We’ve got more people ordering things, but that also means that we are ordering more, and if those people don’t show up because they need to self-isolate, for example, we can’t just tell them they need to pay for things,” Pratik said.
“That might be me being soft, but you have to do the right thing. And in the last eight or nine months, it has been the time to earn your support from the public as a business,” he added.
“Doing the right thing” has also led the relationship between his family’s shop and the community it serves to come “full circle”, he explained.
That is one reason why, despite months of chaos, Pratik was able to keep his business – and his promise to his father.
“I think he’s quite proud, but we don’t really talk about that,” he said. “We just keep going.”
This article is part of Al Jazeera Digital’s ongoing series profiling small businesses around the globe that have survived market disruptions from COVID-19 as well as economic challenges unique to their countries. Click to read about small businesses in Tehran, Beirut and Mumbai.