LOCAL BUSINESS: Loki Wines owner predicts flourishing for independent shops
One of Solihull’s newest businesses has predicted independent shops will flourish post-Covid after enduring “the hardest year.”
Loki Wines owner Phil Innes has recently taken on the very unit in Knowle where he did his training as a teenager almost 20 years ago.
He was speaking of his hopes for smaller stores as large sections of the high street reopen for the first time in 2021.
Lockdown restrictions – which have shut many borough retailers for around three and a half months – are relaxed from today.
Mr Innes said it had been a “really, really tough” 12 months but believes the pandemic could actually bring more people back to smaller shopping areas and, crucially, to supporting local outlets.
“Looking to the future I feel quite positive about bricks and mortar retail,” said the 35-year-old, from Birmingham.
“People can come in, they can get some advice, they can discover something and speak to someone who is an expert in what they are talking about.”
And he believed that smaller businesses – both rooted in and spending money in the community – would be increasingly attractive.
Had the last year unfolded differently, Mr Innes could well have opened his Knowle premises – which follows the success of two branches in Birmingham – in April 2020.
While the first lockdown put paid to his original plans he returned to the idea later in the year.
He confesses that he has a “sentimental” connection to the Station Road unit he now occupies, having cut his teeth in that exact building during the noughties – when it was operating as a Wine Rack.
“It felt really weird coming back and having the keys to the place,” he said.
Mr Innes admitted that the last year had been “the hardest” since he opened his original store in 2012.
Social distancing restrictions in the second half of last year had put a major strain on the wine bar side of the business – with capacity cut by 50 per cent.
“You make your money on a Friday and Saturday night and the rest of the week is a bit of a bonus,” he said, when outlining the difficulties of quieter venues.
But he insisted that outlets have adapted quickly and taken advantage of new opportunities, with some 280 households signing-up for virtual cheese and wine tastings.
The different sections of the store fall across the various phases of the government’s roadmap for lifting restrictions.
Alcohol sellers are actually classed as “essential shops” and Loki could have in fact stopped open throughout the lockdown, although Mr Innes opted to remain closed until last month.
“Infection rates were so high at that point when you think back to the beginning of January, I just thought that even though I can legally open, I don’t think morally it’s the right thing to do.”
Knowle’s sister store, in the Great Western Arcade, will open to outdoor drinkers from Wednesday, although obviously Loki is expecting to wait until mid-May before it can open its indoor bars.
Mr Innes is nonetheless “very excited” about this week’s rule changes, with hopes of renewed footfall in a village centre which has been eerily quiet for months; Solihull had entered Tier 4 restrictions in the dying days of December.
He is asked if he has concerns about the longer-term plans for controlling the virus, whether that’s social distancing measures being retained for some time to come or the possible introduction of vaccine passports.
He hopes that the roll-out of jabs will allow things to return to “close to normality” this summer, but argues the top priority has to be to avoid another total shutdown.
“I think we have to do everything in our power to ensure this is the last lockdown,” he said.
“Personally I think we as an industry have to do whatever we can to be sensible, to follow the rules and hopefully this will be the last.”
As restrictions ease there are suggestions that smaller, more provincial centres – such as Knowle – could reap the benefits.
Long dominated by independents and family-run businesses, the village was said to have had a boost from increased home-working and people “staying local” in the second half of 2020.
Now stores ranging from Knowle Traditional Sweet Shop to Carly’s gifts are among those “coming out of hibernation”, having last welcomed customers when Christmas lights were still in the windows.
Visit Knowle, a collection of businesses, residents and community groups, said: “There is a real buzz in the village as everyone is preparing to reopen and we wish them every success.”
What else is reopening in Solihull on April 12:
Shoppers enjoying the easing of restrictions today may notice there have been a number of changes to the borough’s shopping parades.
This is part of a push to encourage people back into precincts, amid lingering anxiety about the virus for many.
Melanie Palmer, from Solihull Business Improvement District (BID), said: “BIDs and local councils across the country are taking a pragmatic view to reshape our towns and local centres with a suite of improvements that we would not have seen pre-Covid.”
At the heart of this approach is the creation of “greener, more open, meeting spaces” – new outdoor seating areas have been opened on the High Street and in Theatre Square.
Kyle Hadley, store manager at the Solihull branch of cosmetics shop Lush, said: “It’s been lovely to see investment into the High Street during such an unnerving period of time.”
Aside from the return of non-essential retail, the relaxation of restrictions also sees the likes of pubs able to open outdoors.
Since the government published its roadmap in February, eight venues in the borough have applied for pavement licences to make these types of al-fresco offering easier.
Today also sees a “grab and go” system return to some Solihull libraries, although services will initially be limited to half an hour’s browsing or 45 minutes “essential” computer use.
And both Tudor Grange Leisure Centre and North Solihull Sports Centre will also restart some of their services, with restrictions allowing the gym, public swimming and select other activities.
Cllr Karen Grinsell, Solihull Council’s deputy leader, said it was an “exciting” milestone given so many venues had been shuttered for months.
“It’s so good to see,” she said, when asked about the relaxation of the rules.
“And people will notice the centres look a bit different to previously.”
As announced last month the council has also been encouraging businesses to sign-up to a Covid pledge, giving reassurance to visitors about the precautions being taken.
Words: David Irwin, Local Democracy Reporter
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