Rosamund de la Hey: what lockdown means for our business

Rosamund de la Hey
Opinion - Bookselling Tuesday, 26th May 2020

Continuing our series, the Mainstreet Trading proprietor reports on how the independent shop has been faring amid the Covid-19 crisis

We’ve all had to adapt to an entirely new vocabulary since mid-March. Who among us had heard of furloughing before then? The very meaning of lockdown has changed and morphed, no longer the stuff of fantasy fiction.

At Mainstreet, we are an unusual retail format - bookshop, café, deli & home, plus our packed events programme, all based in a rural village in the heart of the Scottish Borders with a population of fewer than 1,000 people. The first two weeks of March saw a gradual reduction in trade through the café, while the bookshop was, if anything, far busier than expected, as customers began to stock up almost as though for holiday reading. By the end of the third week in March, we had already pivoted our business several times, from redesigning the café space to allow more room between tables, to beginning the process of creating an ecommerce platform within our existing website.

"We are hitting about 85% of the normal (books) turnover"

After a tricky weekend, with footfall down in the café by 50%, we took the decision on Monday 23 March to close the whole business for two weeks to allow us to protect staff and customers, and to give us some time to review our options, which at the time looked pretty bleak. This was quickly superseded by the Government’s announcement of a national lockdown, but I like to think we were ahead of the curve! Most importantly for us, the introduction of furloughing and the support we received on payment terms from the vast majority of publishers and, crucially, Gardners, gave us financial breathing space to plan.

We took the decision to furlough all the staff (including my husband/business partner, Bill) except myself and relatively new recruit Courtney (who had significantly better tech skills than the rest of us), plus our brilliant part-time bookkeeper, Mary. With Courtney’s help, and that of Dan Fridd (formerly of Bertrams, now superhero of indies everywhere), we got up and running selling books online within 48 hours. It was a very steep learning curve, not least in terms of working out completely new systems. If you compare selling a book over the till to a customer (often after an enjoyable book chat), the online equivalent requires at least six stages to get the same book into the customer’s hands - upload product, download order, imput to spreadsheet, pick order, gift wrap/pack order, create postage, take to post office - to say nothing of the many emails that the customer's queries will often require. I daren’t even touch on the delights of rural broadband speeds…

We needed to play to our strengths and differentiate ourselves from the online giants. Happily, just just before the lockdown our shop manager Vivian, who runs our book subscription programme, suggested we invent a self-isolation book subscription for a book a week (rather than the usual monthly delivery). This proved an immediate hit with customers gifted a rare amount of extra reading time.

The other main strand of our online offering was the idea of Care Packs - inspired by other, non-book retailers, this allowed us to capitalise on our unusual retail mix and combine books with non-book items. Given Easter was now upon us, we launched a range of Care Packs, pairing books we loved with bars of chocolate and other goodies from our deli. With families separated for the Easter weekend, the Care Packs were an easy solution, so much so that Courtney and I watched with excitement, but also slight trepidation, as the orders built rapidly. In the end, we posted about 350 packages in the week before Easter - quite a challenge when all the systems were new and the internet painfully slow.

Not long after we launched the Care Pack concept, we took a call from Claire, an NHS doctor, asking if we could put together bespoke packs for her new junior doctors, who were being asked to start work four months early. She wanted them to know how much they were appreciated. It was just the perfect boost for us too, and lovely to think of those nervous, stressed-out doctors feeling cared for by their thoughtful boss.

One of our regular customers, Maxine, is involved in an Edinburgh-based charity, the Super Power Agency, which supports children from deprived areas to get them into writing - often beginning with a letter to one of their many author sponsors (Ian Rankin has been amazing). With lockdown, Maxine realised that there would be many more children who needed love and support, so, along with a small team of funders and volunteers, she created the Kindness Wave. Part of their aim is to support local businesses, so we were thrilled to be asked to supply books for their packs. The project has grown legs, and we’re loving being part of something so positive, especially when they share the truly touching video responses from some of the recipients.

It will come as no surprise to readers that one of the most crucial support channels since the madness began has been fellow indies, and of course, the BA (Booksellers Association). The information flow, both informal through WhatsApp, and via numerous very practical emails, has been incredible and vital. We have all been forced to learn new skills and pivot, pivot, pivot, but learning from others and shared advice have been crucial for sanity and support. I am in awe of the 4Indies events programme devised by Sue (Linghams), Helen (Forum), Emma (Book’ish) & Carrie (Booka) - pulled together in record time and with a huge number of brilliant authors.

You may wonder why our deli didn’t continue trading, as it would have been legal to do so - well, the reasons are a mix of personal and professional, but the good news is that after several weeks of selling online weekly Deli Packs for collection from the bookshop on Fridays, we are now running short hours in the deli itself on Thursdays and Fridays. These have been incredibly well supported by regular and new customers, all queuing in a socially-distanced manner as they wait for "old fashioned" grocer-style service from Bill. Looking ahead for our café business, things are more challenging and uncertain, but we are thinking and planning for a way forward focusing on creative takeaway options.

As far as the numbers go, books are the largest proportion of our business (40%), and at the moment, we are hitting about 85% of the normal (books) turnover. However, this does, of course, leave a pretty sizable shortfall on what we would normally be trading across the business. Without question, the hardest part is yet to come, with the gradual easing of lockdown and all the uncertainly this will create.

However, I believe we need to focus on the potential. I had long been avoiding the challenge of e-commerce, believing the online arena was a one-trick pony for books and we were all about the physical experience. But, having been forced kicking and screaming online, with the crucial support of tech-native Courtney (and her amazing social media skills), I find it's working. We will of course have to improve and evolve our offer, but continue we will. And, for any publishers reading this, please can we talk about selling audio and ebooks...

Rosamund de la Hey and her husband Bill are proprietors of Mainstreet Trading in the Scottish Borders town of St Boswells.

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