A tale of two lockdowns

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times

Pandemic Studies, GCSE. Question 1: Covid was the best thing to happen to your business. Discuss.

The last 18 months have been bizarre, peculiar, tough, testing and, at times, pretty blooming horrible. But for some businesses, the pandemic and the lockdowns may have provided just the boost they needed.

Not in terms of the furlough payments, or the business loans, all of which were much needed for some, but because of the way it changed many mindsets. 

The new normal is nothing like the old normal. That’s a given. It feels similar, it looks similar, , the networking feels the same, but underneath it all there is an acknowledgment that things have changed and for some that change was for the better.

When the Prime Minister went on TV on the evening of March 23rd and told us ‘don’t; go to work, don’t go to school, don’t go to the pub, Stay Home Save Lives Protect the NHS’,  it sent shockwaves through the entire economy.

Most merchant companies shut their gates, assuming that there would be no building work done and no requirement for supplies for weeks. Others took a punt on the fact that ‘stuff’ would still be required for hospitals, and stayed open.

 One small independent told me at the beginning of the madness, that April 2020 was a record month because he had the space to stay open and manage the flow of vans into and around the yard. His national neighbour down the road, with a smaller site, remained closed for some months. Much of the latter’s customers not only switched allegiances to the former then, but have remained.

Not being able to run the business the way it used to be run meant that businesses had to – cliche alert – work harder, yes, but also work smarter and more efficiently.Flexibility turned out to be the key factor in all this. Flexibility and the ability to make a decision and get on with it; if it turned out to be the right decision, then brilliant, if it turned out to be the wrong one then you just dealt with that.

Some merchants who had been sticking a toe in the waters of online trading, others hadn’t even got that far. Suddenly, with phone calls into branches going wild, the ability for customers to be able to place their orders online and arrange a time to collect them in a safe, Covid-friendly way, was vital. The merchant world suddenly discovered that online trading wasn’t just one of those things that would be nice to do in the future, maybe, but would never really replace the day-to-day banter and relationship building. Spoiler alert: for a good few months it did. It has. Merchants had to get on board with the concept of opening their virtual doors to customers. Not only that, but they had to ensure that those customers, some of whom were new, would continue to receive the same level of customer service they would have experienced in person. 

This is a change that is going to stick. Once those customers realise that it is perfectly possible to order the goods they need from their local merchant online, or via an App, check their account at the same time as seeing whether what they need is actually in stock, arrange delivery or collection at a time that suits, they are likely to stick with that. Probably not for everything, there will still be those transactions that require a proper conversation with a real, live human being, but a massive chunk of our lives has gone virtual and it won’t all go back.

We have all had to learn new ways of working. We have had to adapt to more efficient ways of working. And many merchants – and manufacturers for that matter – have made changes that will benefit their businesses for the long term, changes that they probably wouldn’t have had to make were it not for the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown.

So, was Covid the best thing that happened to some merchant businesses? Quite possibly. 


About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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