Posted: Thu 4th Jun 2020
Joh Rindom set up Bristol-based retail store That Thing in 2008. She's endured recessions, stiff competition from shopping centres and now the coronavirus crisis. Despite the challenges, she describes herself as a "hopeless optimist".
The last three years have been a rollercoaster for That Thing. Joh remembers pubs and retailers struggling after Brexit: costs were increasing because the pound was weak and people worried about what they were spending.
"I really pushed the business - to really nail it. Even though we'd been in business for nine years, it was a crucial time. It decided whether we were going to exist or not," she said.
Business picked up in the last year and That Thing got where it needed to be. Then coronavirus pulled the plug.
Joh describes being a small business owner as relentless - you have to be prepared to build the business up and know it might not stay there.
Adapting to the crisis
Joh has family in Denmark, where the coronavirus crisis developed about a month ahead of the UK. It meant that she could watch what small businesses were doing there and start preparing for lockdown in advance.
"Early on, I had an inkling of what was going to happen over here. I could be rational about it and move quite quickly. In early March, I realised I wouldn't be able to keep staff on. I had to think about whether I could meet rent. It was a pretty horrible time to feel responsible for not only the business but the staff," she said.
Joh moved That Thing's products online and made sure people knew the store could deliver by bike. It involved implementing a lot of changes quickly and coming to terms with the inevitable loss of revenue.
Festival trading makes up a huge part of Joh's personal income as well as the shop's revenue, so she had to make peace with the fact festivals wouldn't be going ahead.
The challenges of an online business
That Thing has had two members of staff for the last five years. It was a huge relief when the government announced the furlough scheme.
"It meant we could provide security for the staff. Every small business knows that your biggest outgoing is staff costs. When it was announced, I thought 'maybe we can continue to survive again'," she said.
Since furloughing her staff, Joh has spread herself across every task in the business. Normally, the shop relies on passing trade and only has a small number of online sales. But in the last few weeks, she's had no choice but to invest in That Thing's online store:
"It's hard to find the time to really get your online presence together because there's so much competition out there. It was something I wanted to do for a long time and suddenly there was no choice. I've learnt a few lessons on the way - the website is quite old and not up to scratch - but I'm really happy with the level of sales we've got through.
"One thing I didn't preempt was the sheer amount of time it takes to pack and process orders and do the accounting work. I haven't had much downtime. I've tried to keep my weekends free, but that's difficult."
Fortunately, Joh has had friends help out with bike deliveries, which reduces postage costs and helps to save time. But it's still hard not to feel frustrated sometimes, particularly when she could serve 50 people in-store in the time it takes to pack up 12-15 online orders.
Preparing to reopen the store
Non-essential retail stores are due to reopen on 15th June. Joh's preparing to reopen fewer days a week with shorter opening times. She plans to have hand sanitiser by the door and encourage people to use click and collect to minimise the contact with products in the shop.
"We'll have arrows to encourage people to walk the same way. I need to work out if there's a limit on floor square footage, but I think we can comfortably let in three people. We've moved the till to make it easier to get to and we use paper to wrap products, which is safer to touch," Joh explained.
Joh intends to use social media to keep customers updated. Ultimately, it's up to them to decide whether they feel safe coming into the store or not. But she thinks that if everyone does their best to stick to the guidelines, people shouldn't be afraid to venture out or reopen their businesses.
For business owners who feel like they can't reopen yet, Joh recommends thinking about other options, like a pop-up in a different location.
"It's all about adapting. When you look at it rationally, you think 'I can see this hurdle because of A and B. If we want to carry on, we need to tackle it'.
"The bottom line is, I'm a relentless optimist - or maybe a hopeless optimist. I try to see the silver lining and think how we can use the problem to improve. It does make life hard for yourself because you're willing to see things through when maybe you should throw in the towel. But if you set up a business like this, you need to be aware of your limitations and push them."
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