Regional Talking Shops are a great opportunity for our members to exchange experience and practical advice with other local venues in their area – and now more than ever, they’re also a vital source of moral support. Here Matthew Williams of Glasgow University Heritage Retail gives an overview from the latest virtual Scotland Talking Shop, held on 1 September – a timely opportunity to find out how people and their organisations were recovering from the lockdown and responding to the new rules.
Our customers are passionate about our organisations, brands and creative assets, and sales are possible if we can connect with customers in the right way
I began by sharing how we’d managed here at the University of Glasgow. We’d kept our online operation open throughout lockdown and returned to campus in mid-June to begin fulfilling a backlog of orders. Summer graduation ceremonies on campus were cancelled but we managed to boost sales in our online shop using targeted mailing, press ads and social media messaging. Our July/August online shop turnover was the same as the whole of online trade in 2019. In mid-August we re-opened our main shop and staff numbers returning from furlough jumped from 30% to 80% which gave us all a much-needed mental boost. We’ve seen some good sales despite reduced opening hours.
The Kelvingrove had to re-open without retail or catering due to reduced visitor numbers caused by timed ticketing and heavily capped capacity. Transferring business to the online shop wasn’t an option either, as restricted access to the building made it impossible to fulfil customer orders. Some wholesale trade has been possible, and the team are hoping that online sales will resume soon.
It was a similar tale at the Scottish Parliament, still not open to visitors and with no date set. At the National Library of Scotland the reading rooms were open for pre-booked visits but the shop was not yet trading. They are however fulfilling online orders, having found suppliers willing to drop-ship books direct to customers. This really showed the value of our regional Talking Shops as they’d learned about one supplier’s willingness to drop-ship from Historic Environment Scotland at our previous meeting.
Despite this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival being cancelled, 2020 merchandise has still been selling online. A useful reminder that our customers are passionate about our organisations, brands and creative assets, and that sales are possible if we can connect with customers in the right way.
The team at Camera Obscura were the most upbeat about their reopening which happened in July with a one-way system and visitor numbers restricted to 30% of the previous year. The one-way system directed visitors through the shop, and by week 7 of opening they were able to reach 70% of the comparable week last year; an amazing achievement given the visitor reduction. Their usual audience of international visitors had become more local and day-trip visitors with an emphasis on families. As a result, they were seeing more trade from pocket money, toy and puzzle ranges, and reduced sales of traditional Scottish souvenirs. They had remerchandised and amended buying plans accordingly and were rising to the challenges of a new demographic.
It’s worth remembering how important commercial income streams have become for our organisations, and how our collective recoveries will depend on good people being able to swiftly maximise income as soon as visitors return
As expected, many of the group mentioned reviewing business operations as a result of lockdown. The National Trust for Scotland had been conducting a complete review of their retail business, including a staffing overhaul and large-scale redundancies. The University of Edinburgh had moved their business entirely online for the immediate start of the new academic year, with issues around space and staffing making it more cost effective to target online sales to students studying remotely.
Concerns about reopening while maintaining safety standards for customers and staff were clear from the entire group. Getting the right balance between supporting staff with varied concerns, giving customers the usual warm and friendly welcome, and following changing government guidance was high on everyone’s priorities. We also discussed the difficulties of forecasting and budgeting for the following year. Again, striking a balance between complete guesswork and sensible projection being difficult with no clear sense of how waves of infection and resulting changes to national and local guidance might skew visitor and trading figures.
Although we were all at different stages in re-opening it was heart-warming to hear the care and professionalism that was being taken in planning the next steps. It was clear that we will all face difficult choices in the coming months with balancing operating costs against sales, cash-flow and profitability. I think that it’s worth remembering how important commercial income streams have become for our organisations, and how our collective recoveries will depend on good people being able to swiftly maximise income as soon as visitors return.