Crisis is bringing out business owners' creative sides online

The High Street has long lamented the big, bad internet for hoovering up customers, leaving town centres with less shops and less atmosphere.

But during the Covid-19 pandemic, in which non-essential shops have been ordered to close their doors for long periods of time, the web has been a lifeline to businesses.

Many owners have embraced the changes, and come up with creative, innovative and quirky ways to promote themselves and attract new customers.

One of those is Stacey Hill, owner of fashion retailer Oberon in Wyle Cop, Shrewsbury, who has been giving customers a laugh with her cheeky videos on social media.

One features her repeatedly jumping for joy when a new online order pings on her phone, while she also uses the opportunity to give online mega conglomorate Amazon a ribbing.

The video is designed to show that it means more to an independent trader when a customer makes a purchase than it does to a rich multinational.

She said: “The reaction has been amazing. I feel like a minor celebrity. Lot of people have seen it now.

"I just wanted to do something that caught people’s attention. Everyone is doing stuff on social media at the moment and I wanted to do something that reflected my personality.

“It certainly does mean something when people buy something. When I get an order, that’s genuinely how I am.”

Stacey didn’t have much of an online presence before the pandemic, but recruited help just before the virus took over life as we knew it.

“I could see it was going that way. I got someone to help me with PR and we’ve got similar personalities," she said.

"Now you can make a website relatively easily yourself for a reasonable price. It wasn’t like that a few years ago.”

As well as things are going online, Stacey still believes there is no substitute for going to the shop in person.

“We’re a bricks and mortar shop and people come to us because they like the people that work here," she added.

"We try and make it as fun as possible online, and I am excited every time they click, but Shrewsbury’s a special town and you have to come here to appreciate it.”

Neighbouring art gallery The Soden Collection, also in Wyle Cop, Shrewsbury, who has joined forces with a CGI specialist to fight back against the business impact of coronavirus by launching an online viewing room.

Owner Jonathan Soden is planning to keep the virtual tour beyond the pandemic, and believes it could in fact help him attract customers from further afield, providing benefits in the long term.

“The challenges that this year has thrown at us mean that we have had to find new and different methods of marketing our business,” said Jonathan, whose gallery on Wyle Cop in Shrewsbury houses one of the Midlands’ leading contemporary art collections.

“We approached Mark Payne of Cambridge, whose incredible hyper-realism paintings are regularly exhibited in the gallery.

“He also heads up a CGI (computer generated imagery) business called Mission 3D and we worked together to create a new living gallery on our website that clients can ‘walk through’ from the comfort of their own homes.

“It uses the latest digital technology to give clients a very realistic experience, letting them feel that they are browsing through various rooms.

“It will be a changing space just like our Wyle Cop gallery, with different exhibitions and artwork being featured over time, and has been very well received so far.”

Jonathan said that since he asked Mission 3D to create the digital gallery other top companies, including one of the world’s leading watch manufacturers, had commission similar projects.

“We are proud to be at the forefront of this technology which is allowing us to serve our customers even though lockdown means our gallery is temporarily closed,” he added.

Other businesses in the town have also been jumping on the online bandwagon, with shoe shop Ella Cru doing virtual shopping tours, Wyle Blue World doing product highlight videos and Thomas Glover, Roly’s Fudge, Goldsmiths of Shrews, Inocencia and White Lotus Living all new to click and collect services.

For those desperately missing being able to potter around a market on a Saturday morning, you’re still able to get your fix thanks to virtual markets.

Saran Cliff, owner of Party Perfection Events Ltd and co-owner of The Black Cat Talent Co, helped set up an online Christmas fair for Telford, which proved popular with shoppers.

It may not quite be the real deal without the sights, sounds and smells of the market, but exhibitors still got plenty of views and fresh orders.

Saran believes small businesses have adapted well, and hopes it will encourage shoppers to seek out their favourite local traders online while restrictions are in place, rather than shop with large chains.

She said: “We held our first virtual Christmas fair last weekend and it was a great success with many of our exhibitors reaching hundreds or 1,000 plus views and receiving an increase in orders for Christmas gifts.

“I’m considering doing another event this side of Christmas to support shopping local and boosting our local area and the wider economy, whilst encouraging all of the creative and amazing people that have set up on their own following a crazy year.

“The more followers, the better for the amazing small Shropshire businesses that have engaged so far.”

Saran promoted the market to an audience she’d cultivated through a lockdown support group.

She added: “Some of our businesses have done so well to adapt in an unprecedented year and will be stronger for it.”

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