How Covid restrictions leave store owner Nicole in tears

The owner of an independent Teesside store has revealed how the challenge of Covid restrictions has often driven her to tears.

It’s always been tough for our small independent businesses. Up against large chains and reliant on the footfall of high street visitors, the onset of Covid, ensuing lockdown and now the threat of ever tighter restrictions has made a challenging job all the more stressful.

“I’ve been in business for 15 years and weathered a few storms, but this has been awful,” admitted Nicole Bean, owner of Alta Ego gift shop in Middlesbrough’s Dundas Shopping Centre.

“I’m not ashamed to admit that there have been days where I’ve cried a lot and really struggled. I’m normally a very positive person and I do try to keep my chin up, but it has been hard.

“Luckily, the stall holders here in Dundas are very supportive. We’re like a family, so there’s always someone to talk to. Its just the uncertainty that’s getting to me.”

Nicole and fellow small business owner, Helen Oliver of Guisborough’s Solo Boutique, were in discussion with Tees Business executive editor Dave Allan on the PD Ports-sponsored Tees Business Leaders Q&A Live.

“This year has been challenging to say the least,” agreed Helen.

“Personally, I think the pandemic has actually brought people closer together. Of course, things are unclear and we’re all keeping our fingers crossed that we don’t go into Tier 3, but we have to accept what’s happened, adapt and support each other.”

Helen’s store had been open just seven months when national lockdown kicked in.

“I spent the first week at home, worrying myself sick,” she admitted. “But then I started getting messages via the Solo Boutique Facebook page asking if I was selling online.

“I came into the shop one day, emptied it and made my spare room into a shop and sold online from there. It kept me ticking over and it could again for a short time if we went into a second lockdown.”

Nicole also discovered that digital sales were a lifeline.

“I knew I had to have a contingency plan,” she said. “I’m a bit of a dinosaur around computers and social media, but I got myself an Instagram account and did sales from home, delivering locally and posting out when restrictions eased up.”

While both ladies are now happily back in their shops, the changes they made during lockdown continue – just in case the worst happens and they are forced to close again.

“I’m still selling online and I’ve adapted even further,” explained Helen. “Now, instead of the shop being full of Christmas party clothes, I’m selling comfy jumpers, lounge sets, slippers and casualwear – things customers want for a winter spent at home.

“So far, it’s worked well and I’m seeing lots more people shopping locally too, popping in to buy Christmas gifts for example, which is vital for small businesses like mine.”

Nicole added: “I buy local whenever I can and implore others to do the same.

“The independent shops in Middlesbrough and in other towns in Teesside are so unique and so interesting that it would be a huge shame to lose them. They need everyone’s support to keep trading.”