Where you shop matters – visit Britain’s virtual high street | Where you shop matters

Chances are that you’ve been reacquainted with your local area since the UK went into lockdown in March. While venturing out for an early morning walk maybe you found parks and green spaces that you didn’t know existed, and when the supermarket delivery slots disappeared you probably turned to the shops that were also within walking distance.

Your local high street has taken on a new lease of life as more people turned to the butchers, bakeries, delis and corner shops that remained open to serve their communities. Even the stores that had to close their doors found a way to serve those both near and far. Florists, restaurants, art and gift shops turned to the internet and have been receiving orders from round the corner as well as across the country.

So it’s here, on Britain’s virtual high street, that we’d like you to meet 12 local shopkeepers and hear how lockdown has seen them adapt. While the changes they’ve made were fuelled by a need and desire to continue operating at a time when face-to-face shopping almost came to a standstill, many of the adaptations will be carried forward as these business begin to look to the future. Take a walk down our virtual high street and meet the kind of people you are supporting when you shop locally.

Hoos, Glasgow

‘Will people queue to get in? I hope so’: how one Scandi-inspired boutique is getting ready to reopen its doors

Hoos, an independent homeware store in Glasgow found a lockdown lifesaver in online trading, but owner Karen Harvey is now also ready to embrace a new era of face-to-face shopping

Since opening in July 2016, a small Scandi-Scottish design boutique on Glasgow’s Great Western Road has become a source of joy and inspiration for passers-by, thanks to its stylish window displays of cool furnishings, homeware and fashion items, not to mention twinkling lights by night and lush green plants that spill on to the pavement by day. So to see Hoos closed and boarded up as lockdown began was tremendously dispiriting, not just for its owner Karen Harvey and her team, but for others too.

Quote: 'I can't wait to see my customers again. even if it's at two-metre's distance, we'll continue to offer a personal touch'

“I know my customers have found it depressing,” says Harvey. “People who live in the West End who have been walking past on their daily walks find it sad because they enjoyed my window. We always had loads of lovely feedback.”

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CoLab, Bristol

Andrea Mahoney, owner of CoLab, Bristol.

We still offer a great service, just in a different way’: how a much-loved Bristol gift shop will change after lockdown

Thanks to its revamped website, Bristol’s CoLab has managed to survive the coronavirus crisis – but that doesn’t mean owner Andrea Mahoney expects things to go back to the way they were

A lot can change in the life of an independent retailer in six months. For CoLab, a gift shop at the heart of the community in Bristol’s buzzing Gloucester Road, Christmas 2019 saw record sales.

Quote: 'Online sales are really strong and I can still offer a great bespoke service to my customers, just in a different way'

A treasure trove of clothing, jewellery, art, crafts and gifts sourced from more than 60 independent designers, the shop was on the up. But fast forward to March 2020 and the Covid-19 lockdown, and everything changed practically overnight. “Our shop is small and I was worried for the safety of my staff and customers,” says Mahoney. “So on my birthday, 17 March, we shut up shop. I was utterly heartbroken and even now I can’t think about it without crying.”

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Harissa Kitchen, Newcastle

Jamie Sadler, founder of Harissa Kitchen.

‘We’ve seen the impact of coronavirus first-hand’: how one Newcastle restaurant served its community during lockdown

Harissa Kitchen is relying on an army of volunteers to support those most in need across Newcastle and Gateshead

Jamie Sadler is the founder of Harissa Kitchen, a popular eastern Mediterranean and north African eatery in Sandyford, Newcastle.

The idea of combining a vibrant restaurant, offering superb food, service and ambience, with a social enterprise has always been a dream for Sadler. So as well as celebrating foodie accolades, such as a top rating from the Sustainable Restaurant Association and a place in The Good Food Guide 2020, Harissa Kitchen doubles as a social enterprise that helps to fuel Food Nation CIC – an organisation that aims to inspire local people to live a healthier lifestyle on a low budget and improve their wellbeing through food.

Quote: 'We knew there was going to be an increased demand for support, so we had to pick ourselves up and refocus our efforts'

Now in its fourth year, the restaurant had been going from strength to strength. So when the UK imposed the national lockdown, Sadler was devastated, and understandably concerned about the future of the restaurant, his staff and the communities he serves.

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Pie & Vinyl, Southsea

Steve Courtnell stands outside Pie & Vinyl.

‘It’s about a lot more than just money in the till’: how lockdown has shifted priorities for Southsea’s purveyor of pies and records

Spurred on by his local community and his passion for music, Steve Courtnell is determined to open his doors once again

In challenging times, we all crave simple comforts: things like good company, good food and good music. All reasons to head to Southsea’s Pie & Vinyl for some well-deserved self-love once lockdown fully lifts. This is the cafe-cum-record shop and community hub that puts the rave in gravy and the thrash in mash.

Given that it specialises in niche interests, Pie & Vinyl has always had to stay nimble. “We don’t take anything for granted for one second,” says Courtnell.

Quote: 'It's all about fun really - in dark times if you have a chance to make people smile then that's how you step up and help'

But no amount of caution could have prepared him for what was coming in March this year, as Covid-19 suddenly hit Britain. “It felt like something from a film,” says Courtnell of the gloomy day he heard that his dream business would have to close.

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SE20, London

Winston Farquharson outside his bike shop, SE20.

‘We started selling bikes to key workers’: how London’s friendliest bicycle shop coped with lockdown

Winston Farquharson’s passion for cycling has already seen him survive a recession – and he’s determined to make it through this challenge too

Winston Farquharson’s 30-year passion for cycling started with a rugby injury. “My doctor advised me to take up riding to help with my recovery, and I really got the bug for it,” he says as he tidies his cycle shop in Penge, south-east London, ready for the morning rush.

“I wanted to create a friendly place for new cyclists and enthusiasts alike,” Farquharson says. “A lot of novice cyclists don’t like to ask questions in case they’re being silly and might be mocked. We wanted to avoid that, and plenty of customers have told us we’re less intimidating and more welcoming than many cycle shops, which I’m very proud of.”

Quote: 'I'm a plucky fella. I started out with nothing, at the height of a recession - and if I survived that, I can survive this too'

When Covid-19 hit, Farquharson made the tough decision to close the repair shop to walk-in customers, putting Joseph, his mechanic, on furlough for six weeks, and prioritising local emergency and key workers.

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Really Maria, London

Maria Sammur of south London independent craft shop Really Maria

‘I’m up until two in the morning sewing masks’: the craft shop making lockdown work

Maria Sammur of south London independent craft shop Really Maria explains what lockdown has meant to her, how she has kept her business open and helped the community around her


The Artery, Banbury

Barry Whitehouse of the Artery, Banbury

‘My online art classes helped people switch off’: how creativity became a lifeline in lockdown

Art shop owner Barry Whitehouse went from having no website to running virtual art classes for his local students – now, they’re joined by people from all over the world

It may be packed into a small space, but The Artery is full of everything you would ever need to get creative. The Banbury shop is an art lover’s paradise, full of watercolour brushes, lino sets, calligraphy pens and more. Upstairs there is a classroom where owner Barry Whitehouse delivers art classes for up to eight students.

“My customers range from complete beginners to professional artists and my passion is to make art accessible and affordable to everyone,” says Whitehouse. “I know all my customers by name and many are retired or ‘recycled teenagers’ as I like to call them. It is wonderful to see the positive effects learning art has, such as mindfulness, confidence building and creating communities.”


Quote: 'I have gone from around 50 students pre-lockdown to several hundred now'


In March, he was forced to close his beloved shop and put his two part-time staff on furlough. Stuck at home like everyone else, Whitehouse started experimenting with streaming his classes online direct from his dining room via closed Facebook groups. The camera was trained on his easel and he offered step-by-step instructions just as he did in the real-life classes.

“Those first few weeks were about getting my older students used to new technology,” he says. “For some, my classes were the only outside contact they got all week. It became a special time where they could connect and switch off from the stress of Covid-19 for a couple of hours.”

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The Eco Larder, Edinburgh

Matthew Foulds of the Eco Larder

‘We never ran out of toilet roll’: the Edinburgh eco store that’s thriving in lockdown

The husband and wife team running The Eco Larder have been stranded in different parts of Scotland in lockdown, but that’s not stopping them from keeping their zero-waste store open

On 5 June, The Eco Larder co-owner Matthew Foulds had his first day off work for 90 days. Making the most of his free time, he picked up a hire bike and went for a ride. An apt choice, given that when lockdown began, The Eco Larder started offering bicycle deliveries for the first time.

This new option is one of the ways that Matthew and his co-owner and wife, Stephanie Foulds, have adapted their business during the coronavirus pandemic.


Quote: 'Bigger companies have the resources to raise the profile of a small business like ours'


“We started offering a delivery service as soon as the lockdown came into place because of how difficult it was for people to get hold of groceries,” says Stephanie. “And because we’re an environmental company, we decided to do this by cargo bike.”

The Eco Larder is a zero-waste social enterprise food store in the Haymarket area of Edinburgh. It opened in November 2018 after a successful crowdfunding campaign helped the couple to raise £23,000. Their vision was inspired by their daughter, who was only six months old at the time. “She’s a really big driver for why we do what we do,” explains Stephanie. “We just wanted to bring her up in a world that takes better care of the planet than we have been seeing over our lifetime.”

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Sprout, Bexhill

Kaela Mills outside her boutique, Sprout

‘My online business flourished’: the ethical brand that boomed when the high street shut down

Kaela Mills had to shut her Bexhill childrenswear shop because of the coronavirus crisis, but she soon found success thanks to her savvy decision to expand her website

When the government announced its lockdown measures for the UK, Kaela Mills felt decidedly gloomy about the future of her ethical childrenswear brand, Sprout. “When everything first started, I genuinely didn’t think my business was going to make it through,” she says. “Not knowing how long the lockdown was going to last was incredibly anxiety-inducing. I think a lot of small businesses felt the same.”


Quote: 'People have been looking at more sustainable ways of buying and my stuff is all organic'


Mills usually spends her days at The Workshop, Sprout’s retail space and the hub of production for her bright and playful made-to-order clothes. Just a few minutes’ walk from Bexhill beach, it started life as a shared workspace, but as Sprout quickly grew, she was able to dedicate the whole space to her own business.

A place for creativity and connecting with customers, having to close the shop was a big blow. But, after a brief dip in sales just before lockdown, which she links to customers’ collective financial uncertainty, online sales soon began to rise. “Once lockdown started, because everyone was at home buying, my online business just flourished,” she says.

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The Pilates Pod, Hitchin

Michelle Smith of the Pilates Pod

‘A local business is different – you’re part of the community’: how a pilates studio kept spirits up by going virtual

Shutting down her business completely during lockdown was never an option for Michelle Smith – running classes online boosted everyone’s morale

Michelle Smith’s passion for pilates was sparked when she developed chronic back pain after a car accident, swiftly followed by heartbreak. Seeking a fresh start in Australia, she quit her job as a web designer and packed her bags.

“Back in 2001, pilates wasn’t that well known in the UK – so when I saw my local gym in Australia had a studio, I decided to give it a go,” Smith says. “At first I thought: ‘I don’t understand this.’ But afterwards, I realised my back pain had gone away. When I returned to the UK in 2003, I decided to retrain as a pilates teacher, mainly so I could learn how to do it properly.”


Quote: 'Clients are doing classes three times a week online - and still chatting to each other before'


Once trained, Smith began working part-time as a teacher, meeting with clients in homes, offices and rented studios. But after having her first child with husband Ed in 2011, she decided to set up a permanent base – The Pilates Pod in Hitchin, Hertfordshire.

“I’ve been teaching privately on Skype and Zoom for a long time, and looking at bringing more classes online for a while, but we’ve never had the time to do it before. Coronavirus has actually given us the time and headspace to put it into action,” she says.

Within three days, Pilates Pod had gone virtual, with Zoom classes and curated content available online. Members were gifted bundles of lessons to use themselves or give away, and free sessions were offered to NHS staff.

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Baltzersen’s, Harrogate

Paul Rawlinson outside his bakery, Baltzersen's

‘The best part was seeing people, even from the doorstep’: how a Scandi baker served its Harrogate regulars in lockdown

Inspired by his Norwegian grandma’s cooking, Paul Rawlinson opened his own bakery bringing a slice of the Nordics to Yorkshire. But forced to lock down just as he was about to expand, what does he think the future will hold?

After five years spent travelling the world as an army officer, Paul Rawlinson decided to settle down in North Yorkshire with his wife – to start a family, and launch a business that he had dreamed about since childhood. In 2012, Baltzersen’s opened in central Harrogate – a cafe where Yorkshire-sourced ingredients meet Scandinavian inspiration. Locals and tourists alike were soon hooked on the homemade smörgåsbord of delights that Rawlinson and his team had to offer.

Quote: 'Hopefully people will think about their high street … it’s important to get back and support the businesses that we love'

When lockdown hit, a small independent such as Baltzersen’s could well have feared for its future – especially as it had just put the finishing touches to a new off-site bakery, an expansion designed to allow it to bake its own bread among other things. But in adversity Rawlinson sensed opportunity. Within a few days, Baltzersen’s had pivoted to start selling and delivering goods direct to customers. The service quickly proved popular, and Rawlinson ran it with martial discipline, converting the cafe into a temporary “logistics base” to plan and coordinate drop-offs of up to 1,200 products a day to about 100 different homes.

“We got loads of nice feedback from people telling us it was the thing they looked forward to each week,” says Rawlinson. “The best part for us was being able to still see the people who we normally would see two, three, four times a week in the cafe, even if it was just from the doorstep, giving us a wave. It was great being able to maintain that connection with our regular guests.”

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The Flower Lounge, Didsbury

Florist Siân Wild at her shop, The Flower Lounge.

‘I couldn’t wait to flip the sign to Open’: the florist who’s ready for life in-store to bloom again

Driven by the desire to support UK growers and her customer base, Siân Wild found new ways to bring flowers to people during lockdown

After spending nearly a decade training to be a florist, Siân Wild swapped her events role, and the European travel that came with it, for an opportunity to follow her dreams. In 2009, she opened her own florist business, The Flower Lounge in Didsbury, Manchester.

Wild says one of the main things she loves about her job is her customers. “Being nestled within such a wonderful community is really special. We’ve been here for more than 10 years, so our customers do feel like family.”

The day the government lockdown was announced, Wild was floored. She was concerned for her business, her staff and the future but she also felt devastated about what the closure would mean to her customers.

Quote: 'We really missed interacting with our customers. It’s important they feel comfortable in our shop.'

“Flowers are so emotive and sentimental. They’re an everyday item we use to express celebration, affection and remembrance. Often when we can’t use words, we use the gift of flowers. To have that suddenly out of people’s grasp was concerning.”

Since that day, The Flower Lounge team has worked to find ways to carry on serving its community. On day two of lockdown, having already ordered a large delivery of fresh flowers, Wild and her team set about creating beautiful bunches of blooms, leaving them outside for passersby to pick up for free.

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Shop local. Support local
As the shops on your high street are adapting to new ways of trading, join Visa in supporting local independent businesses across the country

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