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Retailers rise from the riot ashes

It’s one year since rioting ripped the heart out of UK retail communities. In London, where the Olympics are showing the city in a positive light, retailers are on the road to recovery.

When rioters descended on the country last year, retailers were left with a clean-up bill reaching into the millions.

Between August 6 and 10, shops in Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool were attacked by looters and rioters who damaged both property and stock. London boroughs including Croydon, Ealing, Haringey, Hackney, Lambeth and Wandsworth were also among those bearing the brunt of the destruction.

The Retail Trust was one of the first charities on the scene, setting up an emergency fund, raising £50,000 via the #highstheroes Twitter campaign and offering 24-hour counselling and advice on its hotline. The cash was used to help riot-hit retailers with everything from putting food on the table and clothes on their children’s backs to paying for legal advice.

“I don’t think we should underestimate the effect [the riots] had,” says Retail Trust chief executive Nigel Rothband. “The impact was not just in the areas affected: all around the country people were terrified it would be them next. Businesses that had been built up over generations were razed to the ground in literally hours.”

The charity has continued to pour money into affected communities and this month teamed up with fellow charity vInspired and Dan Thompson, founder of the Empty Shops Network, to launch Retail Ready People, a free 12-week skills programme aimed at 16 to 25-year-olds looking to get into the sector. As part of a 30-strong team, young volunteers will take over an empty shop for up to one month and transform it into a creative retail space.

“[The collaboration] with vInspired came out of the riots,” says Rothband. “It has made people realise that looking after their local retail community is important.”

That sense of helping out local businesses was evidently very much in place across the country. Even as the fires of the riots were still burning, the news – and social media – were filled with grassroots campaigns to #cleanup the mess left behind.

It also translated into goodwill for local businesses. Sam Davidson, manager of Debenhams in Clapham Junction, saw a huge amount of damage done to the shop, with windows and interiors smashed and widespread looting. The support of local customers, which has continued to this day, has helped the department store rise from the ashes.

“The store is trading up on last year, partly because of customer loyalty since the riots,” says Davidson. “It made people aware of the existence of Debenhams in Clapham Junction. Perhaps before they would have walked past but many now come in.”

And she is not the only one to have turned a negative into a positive.

Elizabeth Pilgrim, owner of designer kidswear indie Baby e, says “thousands and thousands” of pounds worth of stock was stolen or damaged at her Ealing store during the riots. However, the business was back up and running within a month as customers and staff rallied round in support.

“People were coming in ordering gift vouchers and telling us not to send them,” she says. “People were stopping me in the street and giving me money. Stock was easy to get back and one of the lessons learned from this is we only got back on our feet because we had an EPoS system.”

Premium menswear indie Zee & Co in Bow, east London, lost £500,000 through looting – the shop was full of stock as it was gearing up for Eid. But loyal customers rallied around and a year on the business is back on track, despite partial delays with insurance.

“We’ve been on the road for 20 years, so we’ve got a lot of old and loyal customers,” says shop manager Michael Nugent. “We’ve had a lot of emails saying people were sorry for what happened.”

London councils have even seen the aftermath as an opportunity for improvement, with Ealing council ploughing £300,000 into the area to support existing businesses and encourage new tenants into vacant units. More than 100 businesses in Ealing were hit by the riots, but Lucy Taylor, the council’s assistant director of regeneration and planning policy, says community spirit prevailed. “People pulled together from the day after it happened,” she says. “There were locals in the street with brooms wanting to clear up and help.”

Taylor believes this has had a lasting effect on the area. “In a bizarre way, the riots have been beneficial in cementing the relationship between businesses and the council,” she says. 

Haringey council also plans to use the devastation as an opportunity to regenerate Tottenham, the epicentre of the riots, by attracting big-name high street retailers to set up shop alongside independent retailers.

Although there has been some concern about damaging the individuality of the borough, the council insists the move should boost trade for surviving smaller indie businesses. “It is not about rebranding Tottenham, but it is about drawing on these individual strengths,” says councillor Alan Strickland, cabinet member for development and social inclusion.

In Croydon, 252 businesses were affected and the council has since earmarked a number of key improvements to make, using £23m from the Mayor’s Regeneration Fund.These include a £5m business support package to help existing companies, encourage new ones and create jobs.

But not everyone had such a lucky escape, and for many the fact that the riots came in the middle of a downturn has hampered recovery.

Peckham made-to-measure womenswear boutique Gisella was totally stripped of stock, with fabrics stolen and burnt and the shop front smashed. Although co-owner Jan Asante says she has been “blessed” with support from clients, the damage was so great that Gisella was boarded up for three months.

“Looters stole years and years of work from our signature collections – irreplaceable items,” she says. “Since the riots, we’ve mainly had to focus on trying to build up stock again and gradually making our shop look and feel like the shop it once was. It’s been the greatest challenge, and the most exhausting aspect of this whole traumatic chapter. Having been boarded up for three months, we thought people would have assumed we’d closed down entirely, so we had to do a lot of work to promote the business and welcome back.”

Trade has been very difficult since the riots, with Asante considering closing down in the first six months after Gisella reopened. Only now are things starting to look up. “With this summer’s bridal season, we’ve seen a gradual increase in clients, for which we’re both relieved and grateful.”

Story in Numbers

£200m - Paid out by the Association of British Insurers

£700k - Stock looted from JD Sports

11,000 - Retail staff affected

7,500 - Hours of trading lost

147% - Increase in demand for insurance quotes from fashion retailers during the riots

£50k - Fund set up by charity Retail Trust

 

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