“Because people don’t want to go anywhere, they don’t want to travel into town, they want to stay local…this is our moment, I think,” said Laura Forsyth, speaking to us in early October before the second lockdown started. Laura is the latest small business owner to tell us how they have found a way to survive and thrive through the coronavirus crisis.
Laura opened The Village Trading Store in Acton a decade ago in the midst of a recession, so she is no stranger to trying times. However, the coronavirus crisis has been a whole different challenge she has had to rise to meet.
Find that perfect gift and support local
For those struggling for ideas this Christmas, Laura suggests vouchers are the perfect alternative. Whether the voucher is a £5 thank you for a neighbour or something more extravagant, Laura said vouchers help local businesses, and are a great way to discover new areas.
“Buying a voucher means that money has gone through the till and it is in the business and when you friend goes to redeem the voucher it keeps the economy going,” she said. “Vouchers work because they get people to come and visit the area and to discover new places on their doorstep or other parts of the borough.”
Even during the current lockdown, you can take a virtual tour of the shop through instagram by following @thevillagetradingstore or check out the store’s latest gifts and contact Laura via the store’s Facebook page.
Getting through the first lockdown
A former TV prop buyer, Laura turned her expertise to opening the card and gift shop in Churchfield Road in 2009, just two weeks before Christmas that year.
“I had been freelancing in television and the industry had flattened,” she said.
“I took a look at my bucket list and I thought if I could find a shop close to home and close to primary school this would be the ideal situation.
“At the time the shop didn’t have a floor, a door… nothing; but, from having friends in the industry, the shop was treated like a TV set before you knew it – and we got ready in two weeks.
“Back then, this wasn’t the ideal place to have a business because you suffer from footfall. So, through word of mouth, and with more businesses opening, slowly, slowly we kind of arrived.”
Fast forwarding to 2020, Laura took the unusual step to close the gift shop on Mother’s Day this year, in advance of the government’s lockdown announcement out of well-being concerns for her staff.
“At the time I felt that people weren’t taking the situation seriously so I said we would close on Sunday and Monday and wait to hear what happens,” she said.
“When the [lockdown] announcement came in March my first thought was for our community and I wondered how people were going to cope. I was just sitting tight, wondering: ‘Will I have a business to go back to?’ ‘Will people still want to come?’ ‘Will people still want to buy?’
“I got stuck in with spring cleaning, kept busy and felt blessed and grateful for what I have.
“When we were given the go ahead to open, it was like a heavy weight again not knowing what reopening was going to look like.”
‘We are doing this for your safety’
Laura and her staff got to work making the shop COVID-safe for the summer reopening. And she will be ready to go when this second lockdown is lifted.
In the early days of the first lockdown, she invited customers to book a personal shopping session so that they could book in and shop privately.
“It was great to be able to accommodate our customers who were wanting to buy presents for their niece they hadn’t seen and all these other little celebrations,” said Laura. “It was a good way to start and open up to enable customers to shop safely.
“When they come in our customers will always be asked to hand sanitise and we ask customers to wear face coverings. We also marked out a one-way system and invested in a screen at the register to give our staff and customers that extra protection.
“We can also keep our door open which is a good thing if you can to increase ventilation in the shop.
“We expect customers to follow the rules. We are doing this for your safety and respect. If our assistants have to wear face coverings, then out of politeness we would ask our customers to do the same.
“Our customers have been truly amazing.”
‘This is our moment’
Laura believes that, as challenging as this year has been, local businesses have also been given an opportunity.
She said: “I think the climate now is so apt to support local businesses because people don’t want to go anywhere, they don’t want to travel into town, they want to stay local, so this is our moment, I think.
“Before COVID people used to travel on the underground and would be up and out at 7am and back at 7pm, so they would never see our shop open.
“Then we suddenly gained a new audience, a new customer, from the situation because people were working from home, they were popping out, they were coming to the little coffee shops, they were coming to get a bit of lunch, and there is more choice here now with the different coffee shops popping up.”
Those who do shop local, Laura believes, will benefit too. She said: “There is a lovely message that comes out every year on social media, which always reflects how we feel as small business owners, which is: Before you click on Amazon and those big companies, remember the community that you are in. If you spend a tenner or a fiver in your local area you are feeding a mouth, you are contributing to the economy of that area and you are giving back to your own community by spending your money in that community.
“So, yes, Amazon and all those big companies are there for purchases you need to make because that is what [people] are always used to but I think to support the local community just comes back on you as well because you are part of something, you are part of making that area grow, part of making that community thrive, you have your children going to school and the area and it all rubs off on everybody else.
“Nothing is forever, this is temporary; but, hopefully, the forever will be that people will continue to be encouraged to support local.”