It is not easy to walk past Revival Retro, a boutique store located in London’s West End, without slowing down to admire the styles. The independent shop, owned and run by Rowena Howie, specialises in 1920s, 1930s and 1940s vintage-inspired clothes. But, like all non-essential shops, its doors are now firmly shut.
Howie is resolute that the business she built will get through this moment. “Small business owners are the most resilient people I know,” she told me. “This is the toughest thing I’ve ever done, but I am determined to come back stronger than ever.”
But she acknowledges that her business’s survival is contingent on immediate access to finance – something she is struggling to get both from the government and her bank.
“I have a £25,000 shortfall because we haven’t been able to trade as normal since late February,” Howie explained. Her business was able to benefit from the extension of business rates relief, but has been frozen out of a much-needed cash grant because it does not meet strict eligibility criteria.
Her bank has been of little help. Howie is applying for a loan through the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme, which provides financial support to small and medium-sized businesses across the UK. The process has been tortuous and complex. “It took me two days and four hours to get through to my bank, only to be offered a call back which never came. I still haven’t heard from them.” This is just to ask for an application form.
Even knowing what and how to borrow in these unprecedented circumstances is difficult. “As a small business, it’s extremely nerve-wracking to navigate what you are eligible for and what is appropriate. How do you write a loan proposal when you have no idea how you can repay?”
The well-being of her staff also weighs heavily on Howie’s mind. All but one has been furloughed, but she is choosing to pay them the additional 20 per cent not covered by the government. “I always put the people in my business first, and I won’t stop that now just because cash flow is in trouble. They are the people I will rely on to bring my business back.”
Yet in the absence of a cash grant or emergency bank loan, Howie has been forced into making impossible decisions. Having paid her staff, she defaulted on her rent for the quarter.
The personal strain on small business owners like Howie is immense. “It’s crushing. You don’t know if you’ll be in business next week,” she admitted. “I’m doing 16-hour days, no time off – it puts terrible pressure on your sanity and well-being.”
However, she remains coolly defiant. “We celebrated ten years last year. I am retail, fashion, and bricks and mortar. We should be finished. But we beat the internet, Brexit – and we will beat coronavirus.”