One of the UK’s most popular songs of 2020 was Blinding Lights by The Weeknd, but perhaps Please Mr Postman by the Marvelettes better encapsulates life for a lot of us. Internet sales as a proportion of total retail sales shot up from more than 20% in November 2019 to 36% in November 2020, according to the Office for National Statistics.
It was an exceptionally tough year on so many fronts, but not one without silver linings: as life rapidly moved online, for small businesses that have been able to adapt their models to meet their customers at their doorsteps, it’s been a time of relative opportunity.
For independent business owners such as Paola Dyboski-Bryant and Jo and Sam Fitch, adapting to a new world where customers are increasingly staying at home not only helped them survive, but thrive.
The Fitches’ business originally served beautiful cocktails from vintage Airstream trailer vans at weddings. As wedding photographers for more than a decade previously, they had witnessed many events where bar services were sadly lacking and, realising there was a gap in the market for doing it better, launched mobile bar The Buffalo in 2017. A year ago, their pipeline of bookings was so healthy that they’d even invested in a third van to keep up. And then, “we went from our best year yet to zero. We lost every single one of our bookings,” says Sam.
But, over the following months, with pubs and bars shut, people were seeking out fun ways to mark the weekends. Indeed, sales of alcoholic drinks rose by 16% over the year as the nation embraced in-home drinking and dining. Seeing the trend, the Fitches pivoted to a cocktails delivery business, Drinks by Post.
Wanting it to be a sustainable, long-term part of their business rather than a stopgap solution, they curated it to emphasise the sense of occasion you feel at a wedding or event. Boxes arrive with fresh fruit, with pre-measured premium spirits and mixers placed in carefully and stylishly labelled bottles, and recipes enclosed. The Fitches also made sure their new venture is a plastic-free offering.
After months of steady growth, Sam says the Christmas gift season “just went completely nuts. We made more than 1,000 boxes in November and December,” – a massive task, given all the order processing and bottling is done from their kitchen in Ponsanooth, Cornwall. Although they miss the interaction with customers that they’d normally have at events, the Fitches say the delivery model, which allows them to work from home, makes their family life easier.
Dyboski-Bryant, too, is all about injecting a sense of novelty into housebound lives. Her company, Dr Zigs Extraordinary Bubbles, sells kits to make giant bubbles, complete with bamboo wands, handmade rope and biodegradable bubble mix. She set it up in 2011 after discovering that her son Ziggy, then a toddler, was enamoured by bubbles. She put together a makeshift bubble-making kit for him, then started to sell them from her shed, and today has a shop and a factory outside Bangor in north Wales.
Dyboski-Bryant has found the pandemic impacted her business quite differently: instead of demand drying up, it rocketed. She puts this down to bubbles being an easy and endlessly entertaining activity for children and adults alike stuck at home. “I was getting emails from parents who were saying the bubbles were saving their sanity,” she says. “It was so moving.” People were connecting with neighbours by sending bubbles over hedges, using bubble-making to help improve their mental health, or creating activities for children with special needs who did not have their usual carers coming over.
However, the popularity posed challenges of its own. Dyboski-Bryant had been mostly selling to small retailers, with some sales also coming from Amazon. Within weeks, she had to transition from shipping just four or five orders directly from the factory to 200 to 300. Fortunately, she had set up her own online shop through Shopify just before the pandemic hit. But fulfilling the increased demand for online orders and home delivery required a huge logistical overhaul, made all the more challenging because of Covid-related safety requirements.
To become a delivery-focused company, she undertook a big reshuffle of its office and production spaces, making more room for pallets, boxes and postal crates. She adapted some product lines so they would take less time to make: for instance, a more concentrated bubble mix that Dyboski-Bryant says also “aligned with our work on reducing our carbon footprint”, because it is much lighter to ship.
The company has seen such success that Dyboski-Bryant is now setting up a distribution centre in France, which she says will meet demand on the continent as well as help get around Brexit-related costs and bureaucracy. “Who knows where the next 12 months will take us,” she says. “But if this experience has taught us anything, it’s that we are resilient, determined to keep spreading those smiles, and to keep changing the world one bubble at a time.”
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