Why the Welsh lockdown could lead to a spate of shop closures

Melissa Twigg
·5-min read
Bangor - Getty Images
Bangor - Getty Images

The Welsh government has announced that, as part of its firebreak lockdown, all fashion retailers will shut for two weeks from this Friday.

While non-essential shops in England and Scotland are staying open even in tier three areas, Wales has opted to return to the stricter rules we last saw in spring – a surprise move many independent Welsh boutique owners are concerned about.

When Diba Sohrab, the owner of the Diba boutique in Cardiff, heard about the second lockdown, she realised that she would have to close her store for good. “I had a studio in my shop and everything was made in Wales, but with Covid it was very difficult to carry on,” she says. “When lockdown happened, even with government support we couldn’t pay our bills, particularly since my landlord gave us no reduction in rent. Sales got better over the summer, but as soon as the government started talking about a second lockdown, people stopped shopping so I made the decision to close.”

First Minister Mark Drakeford has assured the Welsh population that the “time-limited firebreak” would be “a short, sharp, shock to turn back the clock, slow down the virus and buy us more time”. However, the fashion industry is worried it could be extended into the Christmas period, and are asking why clothing stores are being given the same treatment as hospitality when studies suggest that the virus is rarely passed on in a retail environment.

“We reopened in June and since then I have been working every minute of the day to make up for lost ground,” says Kath Smith, the owner and founder of Cardiff-based boutique Calon Rhiwbeina. “I don't think we’ve contributed to the spike in infection as we’re so careful and always steam clothes in between customers, so I’m not sure why we’re having to close down. I understand they’re trying to make it as uncomplicated as possible, I just hope it’s a blip as we can’t cope with too many of these.”

While inner-city Cardiff has reported lower footfall on its high streets than usual over the last few months, sales have been robust for brands such as Primark in retail parks around Wales. But already shops including H&M, Peacocks and Laura Ashley have shut down outlets around the country, and a lockdown like this could make big retailers question whether they should consolidate to areas with higher sales.

“At times like this brands with lots of outlets around the country will have the natural inclination to look at places with a positive future and concentrate on them,” says Andrew Phipps, a retail expert at Cushman & Wakefield. “At the moment, most of them believe that's London and the area around it.”

Unlike most big brands, independent fashion stores in suburban and regional parts of Wales have done better than expected in the months since June – partly because of a strong Welsh impetus to shop locally.

“I’ve noticed such a swell in local support,” says Kylie Repath, who owns Kylie Rose Boutique in Cardiff's castle quarter, and who was planning on opening a second outlet in Swansea until the pandemic hit. “The community has been so wonderful, and everybody wants to shop locally. I started a Facebook group in Swansea to drum up support for local businesses and we had 17,000 members within weeks – not bad for a city of 250,000 people.”

Repath, whose boutique sells eveningwear, has survived the last six months by diversifying into loungewear and facemasks, but also by relying on the help of her community – something that is often forgotten about at a government level. 

“These retailers are not only important on a business level, they also serve as community hubs,” says Tamara Cincik, the founder of government lobbying firm Fashion Roundtable. “They are a welcoming space and a familiar face at a time when so many feel isolated and vulnerable. Christmas is coming, the most important period in any retailers' calendar, we cannot allow these local lockdowns to go on for months without an understanding of the impact on our retailers and our local communities.”

Small retailers in Wales are being compensated £1000 for the two-week period – but this is still less than many of them believe they would make were they allowed to operate. 

“These businesses need a comprehensive support package,” adds Cincik. “One which allows them to furlough staff if needed and helps them to boost their online sales through training and local network support, so they can get a real sense that the Government values them.”

Sara Jones of the Welsh Retail Consortium agrees. "Retailers are now gearing up for the vital festive trading period when a fifth of goods are bought. If shops can't trade in the run-up to Christmas that will be a catastrophe," she adds. 

Christmas is the one chance both smaller boutiques and bigger retailers have of recouping losses of the last six months. In Wales, much like in the rest of the country, the hope has been that people will use the money they saved over the last six months to lavish gifts on their loved ones. For some, like Diba Sohrab, it is all too late – but surviving boutiques will need assurances that hospitality and retail will be open in time for the Christmas rush. 

“I had a couple of months of fantastic footfall because people were coming out to support local businesses and so I felt quite hopeful,” says Smith, “and I’m sad to see that go again. We are supportive of our government, but I just hope it works. If they’re doing it now so they don’t have to do it again before Christmas, then that’s fine – but people will get upset if shops have to shut again, as at some point they won’t be able to reopen.”

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