Boutique shops in central London on the brink as coronavirus kills trade

LONDON (Reuters) – 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, told Reuters.

The streets outside, usually bustling with shoppers and tourists, were 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, said that visitor numbers were 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 busied themselves refolding items on glass counters in front of traditional wooden shelves of brightly-colored 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,” said Nichols Ramiz-Fugler, retail director at the gentleman’s outfitters, New and Lingwood.


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,” said a sign on luxury shoe shop Stuart Weitzman.

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

The slowdown was initially gradual, said Barry Klein, the managing director of Old Bond Street Luxury Men’s Grooming, speaking in front of dozens of shaving brushes and combs.

“Suddenly toward the end of last week… everything has just more or less overnight gone very much to a standstill,” he said.

The shops could benefit from some measures in a huge government package of loan guarantees, tax cuts, grants and other help, announced by the finance minister Rishi Sunak on Tuesday, but it was unclear whether that would 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,” said Helen Dickinson, Chief Executive 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 said there was a chance his shop would 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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