'When you think it can't get any worse, it does' - Edinburgh business owner on challenges of Covid

Jen Wilson owns Maddie and Marks children’s shoe shop in Bruntsfield, Edinburgh.
Jen Wilson, owner of Maddie & MarksJen Wilson, owner of Maddie & Marks
Jen Wilson, owner of Maddie & Marks

This year has been crazy. When you think it can’t get any worse, it does.

We don't have a transactional website. I only bought the business in the summer of 2019 and it was one of my objectives this year, then with everything that happened, it was tricky.

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Our whole USP is that we measure feet and we fit shoes – and we sell lots of different brands and they all fit differently and it’s our skill, along with the product, that’s the business.

Maddie & Marks in Bruntsfield



So, I really struggle with the online thing because it sort of contradicts what we're trying to do and it's very hard to fit shoes remotely, which I've discovered.

We've found ways around it but I still feel that if we do a transactional website, people will buy two sizes, and as an independent, you don't buy two sizes of anything, you buy one size, so it. clears you out and with everything that happened this year, I'm not prepared to buy more stock to support a website that might not fly.

It's been much more old school retail, which is much more time consuming in a different way. We will continue what we did in the first lockdown, which was me: I become the internet. People just messaged me, or WhatsApped me, and then we started a conversation about fit and measuring their child’s feet - and I sent pictures of what we had and gave advice on what fits, and then from that we'd get a sale, rather than a robot on the internet. I drove around Edinburgh and dropped shoes off.

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It’s time consuming but doing it that way means you get the right product to the customer. And also, you also get quite a nice bond with your customer, so the loyalty increases a bit.

During the last lockdown, I furloughed everybody and just thought I'd just plough on myself. In the beginning it was totally manageable, but towards the end, it was just insane.

This time, I need to discuss with the staff what they want to do. Ideally I don’t want to furlough them, but at the same time, if this continues for a long period, I've got to protect the business to keep their jobs.

I don't know whether I will be furloughing the whole team or keep some just to support me with deliveries, managing the shop.

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We're normally quite quiet at this time because generally speaking, most people have purchased those shoes for their children prior to the week before Christmas.

So, now, we're trying to encourage people to book appointments to at least get fitted, and measured, and then go away with the fitting cards with your measurement on and then when they need shoes in January or February or March, at least we've got a base.

Retail is all about an experience and Covid obviously made that more difficult.

That's the difference between the internet and the shop.

Last lockdown, it wasn't clear if we could do click and collect, whereas this one, they have specified that you can, so we will offer that service from the shop. It will hopefully mean we can operate in a slightly more productive manner in that we base ourselves in the shop, rather than having to drive around Edinburgh.

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I have found that the way that we were doing it via WhatsApp and on Facebook, although longer selling time, resulted in less problems with the product. You didn't really get people bringing things back. People were so thankful. So we'll go down that route again, just probably base myself a bit more in the shop.

There's just no way we can sell the same amount as if we were open. My objective when we were on the first lockdown was to keep a high profile on social media, make people realise the shop hasn’t gone away and get some money in the bank. Ultimately, you can't replicate being in the shop. I normally would have two or three staff members serving two or three customers at a time.

When we went into the March lockdown, it was terrifying. I was just doing everything I could to make sure that this was there for when the staff came off furlough, so that they had a job and we had something to work with. Whereas this lockdown, I feel hopefully we've kind of built the connection to the customers - one that we had before, but I'm just much more in tune with them now - so that we can continue to operate in this, in this way. It's just for how long, I don't know.

Obviously our biggest competition is the internet. People just click something and buy it and I can't have the range of stock that the internet offers.

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We've always tried to create an experience of Maddie and Marks in the shop and now we’re trying to create that experience without people being in the shop. So, you're trying to be as personable and as friendly and communicate as well as you possibly can, all the time, which thankfully, I quite enjoy.

It’s just doing everything you can and fighting for your business.

Brexit would have been the biggest issue for us this year. Now it’s just like a little blip.

It’s a worry for me in terms of cost, because any increases in prices we just can’t absorb and a lot of our stock are European brands. I’ve been communicating with the brands and anything that’s ready, they’ve been sending me now, so we have a lot of spring and summer stock, which has been really helpful.

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Ultimately, it's like the Covid thing - no one's telling you what to do, so you have to come up with your own solutions.

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