The Financial Times’ live coronavirus blog explores the impact of the pandemic on people, businesses and communities everywhere in a series that tells some of these stories
For office staff a switch to working from home prompted a swift change to a more casual style of dress: out went the formal wear; in came the tracksuits. Traditional retailers however have struggled to be as nimble to meet the demand.
The move to joggers and elasticated waists prompted a change of tactics for UK-based menswear retailer Charles Tyrwhitt. But, facing supply lead times of as much as a year, the company, known for its shirts, suits and ties, was unable to flip what it had on its shelves as quickly as it would have liked.
It took some time to stock enough of the casual loungewear that its customers want, but nonetheless the range is now “flying off the shelves”, says Nick Wheeler, who founded the business as a mail order retailer 35 years ago.
The Covid-19 crisis prompted the business overnight to think about the growing popularity of casual wear — and not before time, said Wheeler.
The business realised it had to offer its clients at least 50 per cent casualwear rather than 80 per cent of its products being formal wear. Still it had to ensure the clothes were “fit for purpose and a range that people really wanted to wear”, the founder said.
“Pretty quickly it became obvious that what had been a general trend over the past 10 years was going to become — at least in the short term — a greatly increased trend,” he said. “We’d been a bit slow with that trend over the last 20 years. We’d become a bit lazy.”
The formalwear retailer ordered casual shirts and sweaters but the lag from suppliers around the world meant Charles Tyrwhitt had containers full of suits arriving in June and July, four months after its customers had started working from home.
“Whatever happens, men will always wear clothes, I hope,” he said. “We’re now running at 50/50 formal/casual and I think that’s a pretty good balance, especially if people do go back three days a week. I think people will be more relaxed at work.”
Andy Knapton has been selling fish from his van in Cambridgeshire for the best part of 20 years but has never seen such demand for the produce he brings south from Grimsby, a trend that has pushed him to tilt his business more towards his retail customers over the past 12 months.
The pandemic and Brexit have collided to propel Knapton’s sales higher over the past year: more people are at home to take his call while interest has escalated in fish and domestically supplied produce.
On the other hand, his sales to wholesale customers such as restaurants and bars have tumbled during Covid-19 lockdowns.
Knapton has generated a steady increase in sales since he began trading in 1992 but last year demand went through the roof and sales rose 50 per cent, he said.
“I haven’t got the time to increase my wholesale customers,” he said. “Margins are so tight and it takes so much time to serve them. Just the retail customers are enough plus retail is more profitable percentagewise.”
Knapton’s sales have risen by nearly a half in the year to November 2020, with gross profit up 55 per cent, while he has served about 53 per cent more houses in the past 12 months as his clients spend more time in the kitchen.
He is working harder than before though — to 70 hours per week in the past 12 months, from 55 before March last year.
In pre-pandemic times, one-fifth of his sales came from the wholesale trade, such as restaurants and pubs. That has dropped to as little as 1 per cent because of coronavirus-induced lockdowns.
The shift from wholesale to retail has not been the only change caused by the pandemic. Covid-19 hygiene demands prompted the director of AK Fisheries to use a card reader rather than rely on cheques, cash or online payments, a tweak to his business that has eased payments and helped generate more sales.
“I resisted it for so long since the charges are so high,” he said, “but Covid forced me to switch away from cash and cheques to contactless payments. It’s been good for business.”