Covid pandemic reveals corner shops as the unsung heroes of modern life – Babita Sharma
March 2020, the nation loses its mind. In the midst of a killer virus, Britons are panicking. Wild-eyed they hunt in desperation, scouring empty supermarket shelves for the Holy Grail – the toilet roll.
Mania sets in. Without it, how will we survive the pandemic? Suddenly, rising from the doldrums, a call to action is answered – the corner shop is back.
My local shopkeeper chuckles at me. “Who’d have thought it? A run on bog roll!” She has every reason to feel smug.
When the Government introduced lockdown measures to curb the infection rate of Covid-19, we were all encouraged to stay home. Queuing with the masses, for hours at a time, put some of us off trips to the bigger supermarkets.
Our yearning for reliable, easy access shopping brought us back to the door of the trusted corner shop.
A seasoned expert in bulk buying, the corner shop was dutifully ready to service all of our demands. We headed to the local as if we had been regular customers for years, grabbing essential supplies of loo rolls, flour and anti-bac gel. Even if it was triple the price, they had it, we needed it and we wanted it now.
Lockdown has been very prosperous for the independent trader.
New data shows a 32 per cent increase in sales for convenience stores during March-July of this year. Supporting the local is clearly back in vogue.
I am well versed in what consumer desperation can do for the family business. My parents were shopkeepers for more than 20 years. I spent my childhood living above a corner shop.
And it’s no surprise to me that it is, once again, unconditionally serving us at a time of crisis.
In January 1978 life was dark. Dinner by candlelight was the norm with many homes in Britain experiencing regular power cuts in the late 70s. Paraffin gas was a hot commodity. People were reliant on it and Mum and Dad had it. Tons of it – stored in a huge, what I called, “metal mickey” tank that sat in the back yard of our first corner shop.
Customers would form long queues, jiggling their empty gas canisters, desperate for a fix before nightfall.
Every corner shop up and down the country is defined by a unique selling point – that it entices a customer through the door and into a state of mind, where they forget what they came in for and end up buying more than they intended to. It predates Covid-19 – the corner shop USP was established in post-war Britain.
The shop and the shopkeeper became a key part of community life at a time of rations and food vouchers. The USP was to showcase what a customer could buy and for them to walk away with only what they could afford. The ‘tempt and tease’ tactic sowed the seeds for our future shopping habits. Going wild for toilet roll is really nothing new.
September 2020 and tiredness has set in. Mrs Choudhary’s corner shop was open throughout the lockdown. Her sunken eyes reveal the personal toll the business has taken on her and her family.
She proudly tells me how in the first few days of lockdown, the shop had made at least two thousand pounds. It’s quite the revelation.
But looking at her now, I see little of the woman that served me a few months earlier, brimming with excitement as she passionately showed off her stash of plain flour that was, at the time, in seriously high demand.
Mrs Choudhary is just one of thousands of shopkeepers who put themselves on the Covid-19 frontline on a daily basis.
A transaction of goods is one thing but a transaction of the virus too? She quickly points out that she hasn’t had the virus although admits to feeling a bit under the weather a few months ago.
“Was it worth it?” I ask her. She nods whilst stocking the shelves in a manner that is all too familiar to a corner shop kid. She’s preparing for a second wave. In a week’s time a delivery will arrive that doubles her current stock of essential items (toilet rolls included).
The death of the corner shop has been predicted time and time again, yet it still soldiers on. And it pleases me to know that this unsung hero of British life is having its much-deserved moment in the limelight. But there are always winners and losers in a crisis. The next time you rush by to grab that emergency pint of milk, take a moment to look around. Whilst the future for the corner shop may be a little brighter, the face behind the counter may tell you a very different story.
Babita Sharma is a BBC news reader and author of The Corner Shop: The true story of the little shops – and shopkeepers – keeping Britain going
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