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An indie ready for the coronavirus fight

Vanessa Hodgson, founder and managing director of Suffolk- and Norfolk-based independent womenswear chain Collen & Clare, discusses how communicating amid the coronavirus crisis is the “only hope of moving forward”. 

My day-to-day job before the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak was that of HR, finance, buying and sales director of a small independent retail business – the same job that so many of us had. 

Today, amid the coronavirus lockdown, I have all those responsibilities, minus the sales director role, because we are effectively closed. As a limited company, I am a furloughed staff member in anticipation of 80% of my salary next month, if we can navigate the system to ensure this is paid. 

By way of background, I am the owner of three independent retail stores in Suffolk and Norfolk called Collen & Clare. I started this business 18 years ago and have survived two ownership battles (one acrimonious, one less so), landlord rent disputes, bank restructuring challenges and every other daily battle that confronts us all as small business owners.

When asked in the past to comment publicly, I have always taken the view to keep one’s head below the parapet and to pick one’s battles. Well, perhaps in these unprecedented days, that time has come.

collen and clare southwold

Collen & Clare Southwold

In the week or so since the new coronavirus has taken hold, I have seen more transparency, honesty and communication than I have in almost 20 years of retail experience. Before this career, I was an investment banker and, trust me, there was little transparency there either.

Asked to comment personally on how this is affecting my business I could easily fill a page (or two) with my stresses about personnel, cashflow forecasting, online opportunities or many more subjects. But surely at this first step in a perhaps long journey we should be focused only on communicating. 

I have long been convinced that communication is the only solution to every challenge. We all have a different perspective, set of beliefs and understanding of every situation, and only by talking do we have any hope of moving forward. 

I don’t, at this moment, feel that cancelling every order is the solution without communicating our reasons as to how we have come to that decision. Perhaps for a proforma order with a planned delivery date of September that is the best solution, but I think we have to talk on a case-by-case basis. This is easier said than done when, as I do, you have more than 100 active suppliers. But we are all in this together. None of us caused this, and we are all in an unbelievably tough position.

The spring 20 season was ahead of us all and, for now, it feels as though it will become the one season that just didn’t happen. How we fill this “lost season” is yet unknown, but I feel that we have to come together, somehow, to make a plan. If we discount in a few weeks can we agree by how much, and can we talk sensibly when we know more about how we can move forward? 

For some this may be the final straw in a long battle but for me, today, I am planning and ready for the fight.

Readers' comments (2)


    There is no easy way to manage the COVID-19 situation or even predict its longevity. As Jimmy Dean said ‘I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination’.

    While the first priority for managers is SURVIVAL, Leaders must take a brave and PROACTIVE approach to deliver an updated VISION for success in a global marketplace that will have fundamentally changed.

    Take advantage of the ‘down time’ to plan for the renaissance to come and be prepared to Restore, Rebuild and Revive a damaged business and social environment by courageous and innovative action and a strong belief that the future will eventually emerge far greater than the past.

    HISTORY CONFIRMS during the Great Plague of 1665, William Shakespeare wrote KING LEAR and Isaac Newton invented calculus and discovered gravity.

    Be kind to each other and keep well.

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  • Very wise words from Vanessa Hodgson! Having been agents/distributors for over 20 years now and always liaised between retailers and suppliers, this is a time where we need each other more than ever. Everybody plays a part in this chain and if we want to ensure a diverse and thriving retail landscape after the virus (and yes, it will end someday!) we need to practice level-headedness and understanding now. Focus in what's good and keep talking to each other.

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