Christmas is a crucial time for many businesses. But with just over a month to go, many small company owners are worried that the festive boost will fail to materialise this year as households retrench in response to rising prices, higher energy bills and bigger tax bills further down the line.
Dee Stringer, a former special effects artist and prop maker, founded her business Slumbering Hound six years ago.
The 52-year-old makes cushions, blankets and accessories for dogs, including her 13-year-old greyhound Aston. Two years ago, as the business started to outgrow her home, Dee opened a retail outlet and workshop in the grounds of Hatfield House in Hertfordshire – location of films and TV series such as The Crown and Bridgerton.
Concern: Dee Stringer founded her firm Slumbering Hound six years ago
She says: ‘I opened in February 2020, wondering what the coming year was going to offer and worrying if I’d made the right decision. Little did I know that we’d all go into lockdown five weeks later and that the whole world would change.’
Dee kept her business going thanks to a mix of online sales, Government grants and selling illustrations of people and their pets.
But while last Christmas was a boom time for Slumbering Hound, orders have since dropped off steeply.
‘I’m really hoping for a good Christmas to make going into 2022 a little less stressful,’ she says. ‘January and February are always tough months. I’m crossing my fingers that people will come out and shop, rather than just buying everything off Amazon.’
Adrienne Treeby, 38, set up her company Crown & Queue in 2014, making heritage-breed, high-welfare British cured meats from historical recipes. She sells these to leading restaurants and retailers including Fortnum & Mason.
Having worked hard on building up the business, 2020 was going to be the year it really came into its own – and then lockdown happened. Although her London Covent Garden store closed and her wholesale business disappeared overnight, online orders flooded in.
This year, though, sales are down, cashflow is an issue and Adrienne is worried that people are waiting too late to place orders.
‘I have all my fingers and toes crossed in the hopes of our Christmas sales making up for a dismal year,’ she says. ‘Our products are a key part of the Christmas sideboard for a lot of families, but what I’m most worried about is not that the sales won’t come, but that they’ll come too late for us to accept them.
‘A lot of people are putting off buying seasonal goodies, especially food, until they are absolutely certain they’ll have the dinner – and dinner guests – they expect.’
Lucy Murray, 35, has two businesses: online gift store Little Things by Lucy and Olive & Pip, where she makes and sells personalised gifts and clothing from children’s own artwork.
This year, she says, ‘has been particularly tough and unpredictable’. She adds: ‘We have had a lot to contend with, from stock delays, material and postage price increases and changing shopper habits, along with more competition and a fight for visibility online. We make 40 per cent of our annual sales in the run-up to Christmas and the money tides us over until Mother’s Day. If it’s quiet over the festive season then we won’t have that buffer and could struggle.’
Tim Rundle-Wood, 41, is another small business owner feeling the pressure. He started selling handmade soft furnishings online and then expanded into naturally scented candles and diffusers after his dog Henry fell ill with inhalation toxicity caused by synthetic fragrances.
During lockdown, his online business ‘exploded’ and he found a space in Shoreditch, East London, where he could make and sell his products. In spite of lockdowns, the shop had a ‘pretty good run’ last year, but this year is totally different. He says: ‘London doesn’t feel like it’s recovered and many tourists and City workers haven’t returned. So far this month, shop sales are down on last year when we were only open for the first four days of November. That’s how bad it has been.
‘With rent, wages and business rates to pay, as well as an increase of 50 per cent or more in utility bills and materials costs, the pressure is really on to just break even.’
Federation of Small Businesses national chairman Mike Cherry told The Mail on Sunday: ‘The stakes are high and trading conditions extremely tough for a lot of small businesses as we head into a make-or-break festive season. Supply chain disruption, skills shortages and surging inflation are all taking their toll. That’s why we’re urging everyone to get behind small businesses in the run-up to Christmas.
‘We have lost 400,000 small businesses over the last year. If we want to avoid a similar outcome in the next 12 months, we have to think small this Christmas.’
Small Business Essentials
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