Government support for companies is beginning to wind down following the pandemic, but are jewellery retailers ready to operate unsupported?

PJ asks Harriet Kelsall (founder and chair of Harriet Kelsall Bespoke Jewellery and deputy chair of the National Association of Jewellers) and Peter Wong (managing director of Wongs Jewellers) for their take.

Would you have made it through the last 15 months without the government support?
Peter Wong: Yes we would have but it would have made life a little more difficult and may have led us to use one of the government loan schemes.

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Harriet Kelsall: I don’t think any business with a retail element could have sustained having to be closed for months from a rental point of view or to continue paying staff who could not work.

We are lucky because we could carry on a lot of what we do online and were already set up to do that, but we still would have had to lose some of our precious, valued and loved team members if we hadn’t been able to use the furlough scheme or receive any grant help.

However we have managed to keep everybody employed and all are now back working, though a couple are still just part time but will be building up this month.

Harriet Kelsall

How will the end of furlough, business rates relief and other Covid support schemes impact your business over the next nine months, or are you operating unsupported at the moment?
PW: The end of furlough will not affect us as we are now back trading seven days a week as before. Business rates relief will of course add a cost to our bottom line but one we are able to accommodate. Yes we are unsupported.

HK: We have seen a huge increase in business since the last lockdown and so we are confident that by the time these scheme ends, we won’t be using them any more anyway.  So we hope to be unaffected by their end and don’t feel too worried about this.  We also are confident that if the restrictions have to continue longer than expected, they will probably extend these schemes if needed a they did before.

In your opinion is the imminent end of these schemes justified or does the government risk killing off a lot of businesses as the support ends later this year?
PW: We will all have to stand on our own two feet again as we did before so it is justified.

I think it may take longer for some businesses than others to recover from the pandemic and a smaller percentage of the relief should be available to those businesses for as long as is possible until they are fully back up and running.

HK: From those I have spoken to, the end seems to have been timed in the right place. However it will depend on the type of business and I have mainly been speaking to retailers who have had quite a bit of time to build things back up.

I worry about support ending to people like theatres and restaurants and those who are only very recently able to open again, and still at much reduced capacity.

“The rates system is outdated, and in my opinion, not fit for purpose any more”

Our capacity is reduced by having to limit the number of customers in the studios and also by having to not have all of our team at work because of having to space them out, but not unmanageably so.

I think that the capacity reduction for theatre and restaurants must be much harder to manage.

I do wish there was more clarity on when it might be safe to work closer to our team members so that we can have everybody back in the studios instead of having to have some still working from home to ensure safe distances.

But of course the safety of our team and customers is the most important thing and perhaps this just isn’t clear yet.

Peter Wong

What one permanent change would you like to see the government make for the retail sector post-Covid?
PW: I’m glad you asked this – an overhaul of business rates! We know footfall has fallen and is continuing to fall in city and town centres across the country as the impact of Covid has been felt and the shift to online shopping has increased.

The rates system is outdated, and in my opinion, not fit for purpose any more. If there isn’t change then town and city centres will continue to decline as more and more stores close.

HK: I’m not really answering the question here, but I hope that we will all continue to value actually being at work or school much more than ever which is a positive thing. Whilst it is great to work at home for a day or two a week if that suits your role, you can’t beat working with other humans! Lets keep hold of that thought.

I hope that we have all learned to have many more meetings virtually instead of physically which is so much better for the environment (reduced travelling) and for wellbeing.

“The end of furlough will not affect us as we are now back trading seven days a week”

I hope that councils will allow restaurants to continue with more outdoor seating as has been the case over lockdown as I think in Cambridge in particular this has been a good thing for the city centre environment.

I also hope that online consultations for things like the doctors will continue as it is often easier and safer. I hope that things like relaxation of time limits of library books will continue.

I also feel it might be sensible to ensure that masks are continued to be worn in tightly packed public transport and that hand gel continues to be advised as there are other nasty viruses too.

And even just colds waste so much time and energy – I don’t know anybody who has had a cold in 18 months because of the hygiene measures.

I also feel strongly that in order to help encourage people to come back out again when safe to do so, councils should actively not be allowed to charge for parking for the first hour or two anywhere in town centres.

They can charge for more than one hour of course, but short trips should not be cheaper at a retail park or supermarket than they are in a town centre – it is bonkers.