How on earth does a business survive a countrywide lockdown if most of its income comes from shoppers wandering in off the high street and busy warehouses shipping clothes to internet customers?
That’s the brutal question facing thousands of clothing retailers, from major names such as Next to independent boutiques, as they scramble to tap into state aid and bank loans to pay bills and staff.
For Laura Tenison, the founder of upmarket children’s clothing retailer JoJo Maman Bébé, the most obvious first step was joining her own production line as it was hit by staff shortages and its entire operation shifted online.
Making the effort: Laura Tenison puts on a pair of rubber gloves at 6am every day to start an eight-hour packing shift at JoJo Maman Bébé
The 53-year-old puts on a pair of rubber gloves at 6am every day to start an eight-hour packing shift – before heading home to work out how the business will last the next six months.
‘Decisions we were trying to make a week ago now seem out of date,’ she tells me in between shifts on the production line at her warehouse in Newport, Wales.
‘Normally, I divide my time between our London design and marketing office and Newport, where we also have head office.
‘[But] we are very short staffed because all vulnerable employees are self-isolating. It means I’m also there in the warehouse to ensure staff who cannot work from home stick to exceptionally strict social distancing and cleaning.’
JoJo Maman Bébé is best known for its French-style children’s clothing – a favourite brand of Royals and recently worn by Princess Charlotte when she applauded NHS carers – but it has seen a spike in demand for its pregnancy products in the past few weeks.
Tenison says the baby brand saw a huge rise in sales as soon as pregnant women were told to stay at home.
‘Sales were massively hit in the ten days before our stores closed down,’ she says.
‘But we did have some mad panicbuying from the partners of expectant mothers. They were rushing in to buy everything they needed with their pregnant other halves on the phone telling them what they wanted. We found that trying to measure a nursing bra from afar is quite a challenge!’
Customers are also bringing forward purchases as they await the birth of their child in a few months. Tenison says families are clearly worried that stock might run out or deliveries could take longer to reach them.
‘When I am in the warehouse packing, I’m seeing emergency supplies going out to customers,’ she says.
Big fan: Princess Charlotte wore Laura Tenison’s brand clapping for the NHS
‘You can just see the new mums are preparing earlier than they normally would.’
Meanwhile, parents with slightly older children are desperately trying to find ways to keep them occupied while they work from home.
‘We are selling lots of items that are keeping parents sane as they look after their little ones,’ she says.
‘There are a lot of educational toys and garden toys going out.’
Tenison is determined to keep dispatching orders even as she takes extraordinary measures to operate under the Government’s social-distancing guidelines. Her afternoons and evenings are now consumed by planning efforts to keep the business afloat.
She has analysed every overhead and is taking steps to delay or cancel any payments due to business partners but is adamant she will not abandon her suppliers.
She is outraged by how some of her larger rivals have behaved in a bid to drive down costs, with the likes of Primark, Marks & Spencer and H&M all ditching orders worth billions from factories across Asia.
‘We are an ethical business and I think it is absolutely atrocious the way some retailers are cancelling committed orders,’ she says.
‘Some larger retailers are cancelling millions and millions of items that are sitting in ports that are down in India. This is going to translate directly into people starving on the streets. Of course we will negotiate with our suppliers, but we will not leave them high and dry.’
Tenison launched her brand in 1993 after spending weeks in hospital recovering from a car crash.
She met a woman struggling to buy baby clothes via mail order from her hospital bed and realised there was a gap in the market.
She started the business as a mail order catalogue and opened her first shop in Battersea, South West London, in 2002.
She now has 99 stores and revenues of £67.6 million. She expects all of her shops to remain closed for at least eight weeks.
She is gearing up to ask her Barclays bank manager for a loan for the first time in her business career.
‘Cash reserves don’t last very long. We are trying to establish when and how much banking support we need.’
Tenison has also written to landlords and suppliers to delay payments where possible, but she has faced a backlash. She says one landlord threatened to issue her with a winding-up petition.
‘I’ve negotiated all of my leases personally so I get on with my landlords,’ she says.
‘I’ve found around one-third have been incredibly supportive and appreciate the high street is already in a perilous state. But I have had some landlords being extraordinarily aggressive.’
Tenison is also making sure she pulls in as much assistance from the Government as she can. She is applying for a business rates holiday and the scheme offering emergency wage payments for staff.
She adds: ‘Some of the instructions are open to interpretation. But I fell in love with Rishi Sunak when he made those announcements on a rates holiday and help for staff.’
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