A London street with closed tube station on March 19 2020. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/DAN KITWOOD
A London street with closed tube station on March 19 2020. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/DAN KITWOOD

London — Horlis Ramirez packed shoes with silk bags into boxes in his empty store in London’s West End shopping district, voicing fears that coronavirus could deal a fatal blow to his business.

“This week, I haven’t had a single customer walking through that door,” Ramirez, the manager of Bowen Shoes, a boutique footwear retailer near Piccadilly, says.

The streets outside, usually bustling with shoppers and tourists, are virtually empty.

Small shops in London’s upmarket West End say the slowdown in business caused by the coronavirus outbreak is already pushing them to the brink — and that is before a possible total lockdown in London that the government says might have to happen, as in some other major European cities.

The New West End company, a trade group representing 600 retailers and business in London’s main shopping district, says that visitor numbers are already down 50%, with the decline growing daily, putting tens of thousands of jobs at risk.

In a traditional gentleman’s outfitters on Jermyn Street, an area world-famous for its bespoke shirts, assistants busy themselves refolding items on glass counters in front of traditional wooden shelves of brightly-coloured neck ties, socks, braces and handkerchiefs.

“If it continues ... it would have quite a big impact on the store. Already stores are closing in the town, so I’m sure we’d follow suit,” says Nichols Ramiz-Fugler, retail director at the gentleman’s outfitters, New and Lingwood.

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‘Look after yourself and each other’

A number of shops in the area have already shut, with signs posted in their windows blaming coronavirus and their owners saying they hoped the closure would be temporary.

“We look forward to welcoming you back to our stores soon. Until then, please look after yourself and each other,” says a sign on luxury shoe shop Stuart Weitzman.

Small, bespoke retailers are not the only ones suffering. Global brand Burberry, says it expects an 80% fall in sales in the last two weeks of March due to shop closures.

The slowdown was initially gradual, says Barry Klein, the MD of Old Bond Street Luxury Men’s Grooming, speaking in front of dozens of shaving brushes and combs. “Suddenly towards the end of last week ... everything has just more or less overnight gone very much to a standstill.” 

The shops could benefit from some measures in a huge government package of loan guarantees, tax cuts, grants and other help, announced by UK finance minister Rishi Sunak on Tuesday, but it is unclear whether it will be enough to help them survive the coming weeks.

“[Sunak] has said he will do whatever is necessary to support business and he has shown that he can respond to the changing need of retailers,” says Helen Dickinson, CEO of the British Retail Consortium. “While these are the right decisions today, the government may have to take further steps as the full effects of the situation unfold.”

At Bowen Shoes, manager Ramirez says there is a chance his shop will not make it: “We are struggling big time. I don’t know if, how long we can continue with this nightmare, which is the coronavirus.” 


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