La Cookshop gets back to business

North-east independent retailer La Cookshop has reopened its doors to customers. Owner Keith Crowther shares his experience of trading under COVID restrictions with Dawn Hopkins.

La Cookshop in Northumberland has been trading online throughout lockdown – and officially reopened its doors to customers on Wednesday (June 3). Keith Crowther, owner of the independent retailer which specialises in kitchenware and gifts, decided to take action after the government clarified its definition of ‘essential’ retailers on May 13 to include homeware stores, rather than its earlier definition of ‘home and hardware’ stores.

Following the rule change, he made the move gradually with two ‘very’ soft opening weekends to ensure that the COVID-secure measures he had put in place were workable. He then shared the news via social media and announced that ‘La Cookshop is now open’ on banners along the main road leading to his shop in the Milkhope Centre.

Billed as a country food and shopping destination, the Centre is in Blagdon, 10 minutes north of Newcastle. The complex comprises four separate traditional farm buildings converted into retail units. Keith relocated his business from Durham City to a 1,500sq ft premises in the Centre in 2013. He describes his merchandise mix as originally “pure cookshop and tabletop” but adds that the assortment “really changed 12 months ago, because basically we were fed up with our suppliers becoming our competitors!”

Now giftware accounts for two-thirds of the product offer, while kitchenware makes up the remaining third. Key product sectors include greetings cards; jewellery; gents’ and ladies’ socks; gents’ accessories such as cuff links and leather goods; handbags; scarves; glassware and vases.
There is also a big selection of gifts for kids like jigsaws, along with childrens’ food and drink products such as cups and cool bags for school lunches.

So now that customers can visit La Cookshop again, what changes can they expect?

Staff are currently furloughed, so Keith and his wife Carol are managing customer numbers, which are limited to between six and 10 at any one time. As Keith explains: “If there are four couples, then we can let another two individuals in. But if it’s eight single people, we reduce it to six and ask two to wait outside.”

This new restriction has been accepted without complaint. “People are patient – and Britain is a nation of queuers,” he says. “They do it at the supermarket all the time now!”

Before entering, shoppers must use the hand sanitiser which is provided. They then follow socially-distanced directional arrows on the floor. There is also signage reminding them to keep two metres apart. The 10ft long counter has been screened off, so customers place their shopping baskets at one end and their purchases are then processed and bagged, ready for collection at the other end. They then pay using a contactless card.

“We’re 100% cashless,” says Keith. “The day I had to close the shop, I took all the money out and put it in the bank. Then, when we reopened, I thought: “We’ll just carry on. I’m not going to bother going into the bank again and drawing money out.’ It’s what people expect now: they’re used to it. When they go to the supermarket, greengrocer, butcher or farm shop, they use a card. It’s all contactless now.”

If shoppers spend more than the £45 contactless limit, the card machine is cleaned before they tap in their PIN and sanitised again immediately afterwards. Their basket handle is disinfected too, before being used by the next customer.

Keith and Carol have opted to wear visors rather than face coverings because, as Keith points out, “we’re very much aware that if somebody is hard of hearing and needs to lip-read, they can’t do so if you’re wearing a mask.”

His rigorous approach to ensuring La Cookshop meets COVID-secure guidelines has not gone unnoticed by customers.

“We’re taking the health and safety measures very seriously and today we were paid a compliment by a customer who thought we had done extremely well. She said we are the best place she’s been to compared with supermarkets and so on. We are pulling out all the stops. Well, you’ve got to, haven’t you?”

So, has he observed a change in shoppers’ behaviour in coronavirus times? “When it comes to browsing, I’ve noticed that customers are less ‘touchy-feely’,” he says. “A lot of them seem to look and consider, whereas before they would pick something up and put it down a couple of times.”

Meanwhile, La Cookshop’s online sales have increased by 100% since lockdown. “It took a few weeks to be fair,” Keith says. “It wasn’t so good at the start of April. Perhaps people thought ‘this lockdown is only going to be two weeks and then we’ll be out’. So they weren’t buying online to begin with. But then there was the stark realisation that lockdown was going to go on for longer, so they thought: ‘We’d better do something.’ May was definitely the best month out of the past three months of March, April and May.”

He notes that his courier service delivery driver has remarked that total daily parcel workloads are currently so heavy that “it’s like Black Friday and the two days before Christmas – combined”.

Keith predicts that the bricks-and-mortar side of his business will get busier when the official non-essential retail opening day arrives on June 15. “I think a lot more people will come out then, partly because clothing shops are going to be open,” he says. But, he warns: “It is going to be a very, very difficult second half for retail. I’m quite confident that we will survive because we are a ‘destination’ place, so we will be okay. But it’s what the level of impact will be everywhere else and what level of unemployment we end up with… Let’s just see what happens. But I fear the high street will be a bloodbath.”

On a more positive note, Keith has been keeping in touch on a very regular basis with his staff through apps. “WhatsApp has been a boon,” he says. “We decided to set up a WhatsApp group on day two of lockdown and it’s been great, because it keeps people involved and we have a laugh. We use it almost every day.”

He also hosts Zoom meetings with his employees. Three staff have celebrated their birthdays since lockdown “so we held Zoom birthday parties and had an afternoon tea party for VE Day. We all got dressed up and waved our Union Jacks! It just makes everybody feel like they’re a team.”

And if any of his housebound staff need essentials, he is happy to drop goods off at the end of their drives. “In times like these, it’s what you do,” he says.

Keith also has a pleasant surprise lined up for his employees when they eventually return to work. In the early days of lockdown, he used the unexpected break to redecorate the shop’s interior and fixtures. He has also repainted the staff room and even hung pictures on the walls. “We’ve transformed the place!” he smiles.
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01670 789142

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