Christmas is peak business time for many small, independent retailers, but a mountain of challenges means it is becoming nigh-on impossible for them to take full advantage.
Postal and rail strikes, rising energy costs, a squeeze on consumer spending, supply chain issues and the war on Ukraine have created a perfect storm for businesses to battle though.
Undaunted, many small business owners are coming up with solutions. As one business owner puts it: ‘We thought Covid was bad, but this is far worse. But we got through Covid and we’re determined to get through this.’
An eye on costs: Jewellery designer Lottie Leigh and, left, Kelly Vowles
The Mail on Sunday speaks to some of the businesses impacted.
Postal and rail strikes
As a fine jewellery designer, Lottie Leigh, of Lottie Leigh Fine Jewellery, says Christmas is crucial for commissions and sales. But this year, she is being thwarted by postal strikes, hitting both her supply chain and ability to get orders out to clients.
Lottie began designing jewellery 12 years ago when she was unable to find her own dream engagement ring. She now creates jewellery for clients using the latest computer-assisted designs and 3D printing technology.
‘The jewellery industry is very reliant on Royal Mail, particularly its special delivery service, as our insurance covers us to send expensive items via this service,’ says Lottie.
She adds: ‘I need Royal Mail to send and receive items to and from the assay office for hallmarking – and to receive castings from my casting house. Not being able to rely on a quick turnaround to receive these items means there are delays in completing commissions. And when you are being commissioned to make engagement rings for Christmas and New Year proposals, it can be stressful.’
To mitigate some of the problems she is facing, Lottie has been travelling from her North London office to various suppliers to collect and deliver items herself. This has been time-consuming. She has also had to hire staff to help package items and take them to the Post Office so they can go out on non-strike days.
‘Ensuring items are not in transit during a strike is very important as it reduces the chance of them going missing,’ says Lottie. ‘I’ve been using London suppliers rather than ones elsewhere in the UK as it means I can visit them myself if necessary.’
Rising energy costs
Bakery owner Charlotte Giddings is struggling to keep her business afloat as a result of soaring energy bills.
Having moved from London to Diss, Suffolk, in 2018 – a move featured on BBC One programme Escape To The Country – Charlotte and husband Luke were planning to run a mobile cafe. But once Covid swept the country, they moved into baking, launching Brownie and the Bean. It makes cakes, brownies and sweet treats for retail and wholesale customers.
But with ten fridges, four ovens, kitchen equipment, dishwashers and food mixers running constantly in their converted double garage bakery, the company has been hit hard with the rise in energy prices.
‘Oil used to cost £400 a tank, but it’s now £2,200, and we’ve seen a huge increase in electricity costs,’ says Charlotte. ‘The cost of our ingredients – sugar, eggs and flour – have jumped and we have also been hit by the rise in petrol prices as we do our own wholesale deliveries. But we can’t sit at home crying – we baked 1,100 brownies on Friday.’
To help with costs, the company has cut back on packaging, now bulk-buys essentials such as sugar, and is using reusable containers for wholesale deliveries. ‘We don’t want to compromise on ingredients but if things get more expensive, we’re going to struggle,’ says Charlotte.
The strikes have meant the couple working long hours to make sure everything is made in time to reach customers before Christmas. ‘I back anyone’s right to strike, but after the difficult time many small businesses have had over the past few years, it makes you feel rather dizzy,’ says Charlotte.
War in Ukraine
Charlotte Bordewey runs laser engraving and cutting business Spencer-Brookes Designs with her mother Susan and brother Chris.
She says: ‘We have experienced no end of struggles this year. It’s making the ‘Covid Years’ as we call them, a stroll in the park.’
The company makes craft items and personalised gifts with its laser-cutting machines, mainly making use of wood and acrylic materials.
Due to the embargo on Russian imports following its invasion of Ukraine, Baltic plywood, which mainly comes from Russia, is now illegal to import.
Says Charlotte: ‘All alternatives quickly sold out and then became unavailable. The quality of wood left was terrible and we were being offered low quality material for more than it cost before.’
Savings: Bakers Luke and Charlotte Giddings now bulk-buy essentials
The company, based in Leominster, Herefordshire, was forced to move to MDF (medium density fibreboard) instead, but that resulted in losing a large number of customers who have yet to come back.
Charlotte has since found a better alternative, but it still costs more than the company used to pay. This has severely impacted profits.
To add to the company’s woes, certain design products such as spray paints and glitter acrylic have been difficult to get hold of while the impact of the Royal Mail strikes has been horrendous.
Many customers have been put off ordering online due to all the uncertainty while the earlier ‘last post’ dates for Christmas has resulted in a loss of nearly two weeks of trading.
The company is fighting back by diversifying into digital products. By selling online templates for designs, Spencer-Brookes can supply the growing number of people who are buying their own laser cutters – for business or for a hobby. Charlotte says: ‘We’re determined to hit the ground sprinting in 2023.’
Rising costs and falling customer numbers are making business difficult for Kelly Vowles, owner of Pixal-Rose Hair salon and academy in Swindon, Wiltshire.
Kelly is also worried that power blackouts could compromise her business further.
‘We’ve been taking lots of steps to combat the issues we’re facing,’ she says. ‘We’ve switched to disposable towels in the salon to reduce the times we use the washing machine – and we’re buying cheaper products where we can, such as gloves on Amazon.’
To encourage business, Kelly’s salon is offering lower-maintenance colour services which are proving popular.
She has also been training staff to carry out more specialised cuts, which reduces product costs and boosts business.
Building up her training academy is also a useful extra source of income.
And to avoid power cuts, Kelly says: ‘Our clients can work on their laptops during treatments, to avoid likely blackout times. We can even be quiet if they want to make a Zoom call.’