High Streets: How businesses in Bedford are adapting to stay ‘relevant’

Lockdown, the growth of online shopping and a general decline in High Street trade has combined to make it a tough time for retailers. As a new report predicts the loss of thousands of jobs and long term home-working, how are people adapting to make a living?

Like towns and cities across England, Bedford has been hit hard by Covid-19.

Its High Street had already suffered some big name closures in recent years, including Topshop, River Island and Marks and Spencer. Department store Beales was added to that list in March.

Even after lockdown restrictions are eased, there are signs trading conditions will continue to be difficult.

A report by consultancy firm KPMG estimates 16.7% of jobs in the town will continue to be done from home after the pandemic has passed, resulting in an inevitable decline in town centre footfall.

And it predicts retail jobs will be lost in their thousands around England. In Bedford, which is home to about 100,000 people, that number is estimated to be 1,321.

‘Everything has been a learning curve’

For Suzie French, 37, and her husband, Chris, 41, being able to “adapt” a business model is vital.

They took over the running of Buzz Bees Cards, in Bedford’s Howard Centre, five years ago – selling cards, gifts and party wear.

As their shop is non-essential, it has been closed during all three lockdowns. To keep afloat, it has turned to Facebook and Messenger to sell directly to its customers online.

Then in November, it launched a website for the first time.

“Everything has been a new learning curve for us,” she says.

“We need to be relevant, to say: ‘We are still here on the High Street, we are working, but we can also offer a bespoke local service.'”

It meant delivering items for free locally.

“If we had not done it, other businesses would have offered it, and it would have driven people to go to the supermarket,” she says.

“We could have offered click and collect but, for us, it was the right thing was offering contactless delivery.”

They plan to reopen when possible.

“A physical shop still has a place as I think people are fed up with choosing items online – they want the choice and to pick it up,” says Mrs French.

“It’s tough out there but you have to adapt and it’s a challenge we are ready to take on. “

‘We thought we could take that risk’

Married couple Matt and Gabbie Pearson, both 28, had to act quickly to start their own business.

Mr Pearson was made redundant from this job at a youth development charity

They created Foxy Wings, a takeaway food business, from their home in Clapham, near Bedford.

It fits around looking after their three children, aged four, three and one.

“Knowing that it would be tricky to get a job we wanted, we had a vision, we wanted to develop our own business and create opportunities for others,” Mr Pearson says.

Business has picked up so much it is now employing 10 people. From early days that saw 10 orders a night, they are now up to about 60.

Mrs Pearson says: “It was really hard. We just felt that, because everyone was locked in, we thought we could take that risk. We have a young family and we wanted to be in control of our livelihood.”

The couple are now looking to open a restaurant in the centre of Bedford.

“One of my passions is we are business that takes other small businesses along with us,” says Mrs Pearson.

“I am passionate about younger people, women owning businesses and being able to create the life that they want for themselves in Bedford.”

‘It’s an exciting time to be a small business owner’

After losing most of her paid work as a travel consultant, Enfys Maloney, 35, looked at her own skills set to make a new living.

“I spent most of last year cancelling all the work I had done,” she says.

She wanted to remain self-employed, and had worked in sales before, decided starting a sales training company and business lounge on Facebook, was the answer.

“My place is to empower small business owners to take the reins of their sales process,” she says.

“It’s a really scary time for retail at the moment but times have changed.”

She believes business owners, professionals and entrepreneurs sharing their ideas and inspiring others will help them.

“It is important for our economy [that they] feel confident about selling their services,” she says.

“Customers want to engage with small businesses as buyers, customers want to support their micro local economy – it’s an exciting time to be a small business owner.”