The hunt for hope beyond Covid-19

delivery driver at work
Business support: what will the future hold? Credit: Getty

The series on inclusive capitalism continues with three experts discussing approaches to combat unemployment, homelessness and community economic decline

Customers have the power to save the high street

Agile businesses that adapt to the pandemic are morelikely to gain clients, says Nicole Leinbach Reyhle

Nicole Leinbach Reyhle

Transformation happens by choice or by chance. As UK businesses large and small found themselves shut down or in serious peril due to Covid-19, they had to identify ways to maintain their connectivity to customers and profit. There was no choice.

Businesses stay open if customers keep them open. Consumer pounds maintain the health of businesses on high streets and elsewhere. Yet too often customers neglect the importance of supporting small businesses. They are the ones with the choice.

In this crisis, supporting the health of small businesses is essential because not only does it keep their doors open, it also creates an economic domino effect on the community that they call home.

Supporting local businesses can decrease unemployment, boost the well-being of the local high street and maintain the charm of communities that come to life through the activity in these shops.

Shop local: the consumer pound will become more powerful than ever Credit: Getty

The customer is truly the one in control and right now holds the key for the survival of the high street. So what will it take for customers to want to support their local businesses when it is often more convenient and even more affordable to shop somewhere else?

Put simply: change. That is what must happen for independent retailers and small businesses to survive the Covid-19 crisis. It will happen only if business leaders make the choice to create it.

Change means reacting to new customer demands. Change means stepping outside comfort zones. And change means introducing new ways of customer connectivity, despite the challenges that may come with it.

From how customers explore inventory to touchless payment options and buying online – even via social media – then picking up kerbside and more, there are many variations to what we have historically known as shopping. The desire to deliver an entertaining and engaging experience for customers remains the same.

Looking online

The catch, of course, is that this now comes with the heightened expectation of safety in this pandemic. Implementing employee best practices to maintain staff safety and introducing new customer-service standards to maintain their safety are among the top changes that should be made. But beyond this, business owners must look to where their customers are and what they want.

And often that means looking online. While “online” often comes with a huge sigh of disappointment for businesses as it seems to conflict with their physical stores, online is where bricks-and-mortar companies need to be to get customers to their stores or at least spending.

It means retailers can move inventory and boost sales from their physical locations. But changes can be made to bricks and mortar retail too. Innovative approaches to commercial and retail leases – such as replacing traditional long-term rentals with flexible options – could help many retailers get back on their feet.

But the main takeaway is this: create change in your old habits to welcome change in our new commercial world. Collectively, these efforts will be the difference in surviving businesses versus struggling or even dying businesses during and after Covid-19. As a customer, what decision do you want to make? As a business leader, what decision do you need to make? Together, you can each make a difference for the survival of the high street and local economies.

Nicole Leinbach Reyhle is the founder and publisher of retailminded.com and the co-founder of the Independent Retailer Conference

We must find jobs for the homeless –that’s exactly how I started

Chef and restaurateur Aldo Zilli was rescued from the streets by an open-minded employer, and says it is vitally important that our society keeps nurturing seemingly unlikely talent

Aldo Zilli

When I reached the age of 16, I didn’t want to do any more schooling, so I decided to go to Germany to look for work.

A guy was promising a job – but when I got there, he was nowhere to be found. I didn’t have money for the train back, so I ended up with nowhere to go. I slept in phone boxes and petrol stations. It was -2C and snowing.

Homelessness help: could kitchens provide much needed jobs? Credit: Getty

Homelessness, unless you experience it, is very difficult to describe because you become invisible. I took to begging for food round the back of restaurants and eventually one of them decided to give me a job. It offered a room with no central heating or windows – I don’t know if it was worse than a petrol station, to be honest. But it was shelter. That was how my career began. In 1978 I came to London and began running a kitchen in Soho for a Sicilian guy who had guns in his flat, and I’m sure was in the Mafia. One day, he asked if I wanted to rent his restaurant for £500 a week cash.

People struggling

Having experienced homelessness myself, I then saw it as a business owner with people sleeping on my doorstep. This continued through the 1980s and 1990s. I saw people struggling all the time.

There was a charity in Soho called Centrepoint and in 2005 Prince William became a patron, so he and I met, and I became a Centrepoint ambassador. I’ve never stopped. I cook at the shelter in Dean Street and I help them raise funds for hostels and other accommodation.

There were 110,000 people in the UK homeless or at risk of homelessness in 2018-19. Now, with the coronavirus, there’s a rise of 5 to 10 per cent. Meanwhile, charities have had far less money and social distancing has made things extra difficult. It’s more scary to be on the streets when there’s nobody around. I think we need to open up more hotel rooms and B&Bs to homeless people. When an earthquake near my home town in Italy left lots of people homeless, the hotels nearby gave them all rooms for the winter. We could be definitely doing more of that.

Change of mindset

But the key thing is job opportunities. Whoever works in restaurants started by washing up and doing hard work. Jamie Oliver used to get up at three o’clock in the morning to make bread in my friend’s restaurant.

When you get to the top in this trade, you never forget where you’ve come from – so Jamie and I try really hard to get homeless people employed.

I feel that if you’re employed, and if you have got something to get up for in the morning, your mindset changes. Our industry is willing to employ and train people. Other sectors could learn from us. In other industries you’ve got a big, big problem to get anywhere if you haven’t got a CV. So we need to open up and help others more. That’s how we will make a more resilient society.

Aldo Zilli, 64, one of nine children born to a family in central Italy, is a celebrity chef and restaurateur specialising in Italian cuisine 

The time is ripe to reinvent sustainable urban living

We need long-term investment and fresh thinking, argues Glyn Robbins

Glyn Robbins

In the 1970s my grandparents ran a newsagent’s on a thriving east London high street, next to a post office, a toy shop, a pub, a baker’s and a place that sold Elvis memorabilia. Nan and Grandad lived above their shop, which was a focal point for the local community.

This nostalgic image has been shattered by 50 years of car-dependent out-of-town retail, alongside a growing environmental and housing crisis. Covid-19 has highlighted the urgent need to tackle these interlinked issues, but it will take long-term investment and fresh thinking. We cannot revive the high street without tackling the housing emergency. In England, there are 1.2 million households on housing waiting lists, but at least 226,000 homes stand empty. The Federation of Master Builders estimated in 2017 that 400,000 new homes could be created above shops – and the Social Market Foundation has recently said it could be double that.

Homes and high streets are intertwined, and they need to be genuinely sustainable. But this is incompatible with a housing system suffused with uncertainty. According to Shelter, on average private renters spend 41 per cent of their income on rent. If they only paid 30 per cent, they would have £11.4bn a year more in their pockets – and some of that could be spent in local shops, thus circling the square of sustainable communities.

Urban regeneration: 'Homes and high streets are intertwined' Credit: Getty

Keeping people in homes they can afford is essential but, as The Big Issue founder John Bird has said, so is keeping them in work. The high street can be the place to do both. This should start with involving local people in discussions about what is happening in their communities. Councils have an important part to play, but decision-making should be devolved to neighbourhood level.

For example, flats above shops could be retrofitted for energy efficiency and extended to enable tenants to open independent small businesses in the shops below. Granby Street in Liverpool shows what is possible. Empty homes have been renovated as part of a community-focused initiative to improve the local environment, including a regular street market.

Such projects need long-term funding and support, but point to a revival of the kind of diverse high street my grandparents were part of.

Continuing as we did before Covid-19 will not help the recovery. The plea of American urbanist Lewis Mumford to “forget the damned motor car and build cities for lovers and friends” has never been so relevant as it is today.

Glyn Robbins is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics

The Power of Us

Building greater, more sustainable economic growth can improve the lives of everyone in the UK.

This is the goal of inclusive capitalism: using money and investment as a force for good, to create real jobs and better infrastructure to transform the UK’s cities and towns and tackle the biggest issues of our times such as housing, climate change and ageing demographics.

It’s something businesses, communities and individuals can all get behind and work together to achieve – and it’s why Telegraph Spark has teamed up with Legal & General for The Power of Us, a campaign that aims to identify the challenges facing society, then use some of the UK’s brightest, most innovative thinkers to help solve them.

The Power of Us: the future is in your hands.