8 May 2020 Courier Weekly

What Berlin’s rush to reopen means for small businesses

‘Our business model going forward will be adaptive. Realistically, we have to react to the changing times.’

On 22nd March, Germany officially went into lockdown. By now, we all know too well what this means: citizens told to stay indoors, non-essential businesses forced to close and pretty much everyone adapting and evolving to keep themselves afloat.

There have been silver linings, but overall the economic picture for many businesses has been pretty dismal. So when the German government announced on 20th April that small businesses – those under 800 square meters – could reopen, the initial response was positive. Business as usual – what’s not to like?

And yet as florists, bike shops, design stores and lots of other small businesses gradually started to reopen, a different picture has emerged.

For Aleksandra Koslowska, founder of the Berlin concept store No Wódka, creating a dynamic customer experience while still upholding the new guidelines has been challenging. Throughout Germany, only one customer is allowed per 20 square metres and they must keep 1.5 metres away from each other at all times. Employees and customers must also wear masks. Since founding her Polish fashion, art and design store in 2014, Aleksandra says, ‘It’s always been important for me to allow people to touch and interact with the products’. Having to police her customers feels unnatural, she says, and wearing a mask provides another barrier to communication.

Aleksandra considers herself lucky that sales didn’t dip during the time her store was closed, thanks to her website. ‘I noticed that customers’ [purchasing] choices changed during this time. For example, blanket sales went up, as people are working from home and sitting on the couch.’ As a result, Aleksandra has adapted her product range to suit people’s change in lifestyle.

Since reopening, No Wódka has had queues out the door, but with the economic future still looking uncertain for many people, Aleksandra isn’t confident that demand will last. Many other businesses are also concerned that the new measures will continue to slice their profit margins, with fewer customers allowed in-store at a time. In the rush to reopen, government guidelines have been hazy, leaving some business owners unsure how to proceed.

The owners of Berlin’s Albatross Bakery, for example, quickly took matters into their own hands even before the lockdown came into effect. They closed off the seating area in their cafe, sent home staff that were feeling unwell on fully-paid sick leave, and implemented a thorough hygiene regimen. Albatross was also quick to adapt its business model. After the wholesale side of the business dropped by 90% – slashing 45% of total revenue – the company teamed up with other local food and drink businesses to create an online marketplace and delivery service, called Archipel. ‘We already had a wholesale logistics system that we could remodel, but other businesses haven’t been as fortunate,’ says Anders Alkaersig, one of the bakery’s three founders.

But under the new regulations, food establishments are still unable to reopen indoor seating for customers. ‘We won’t feel comfortable opening up our cafe for people to sit before concerts, festivals and football matches start up again,’ says Anders. Aware that there isn’t going to be a moment when everything ‘suddenly goes back to normal’, he adds, the bakery will press on with the delivery service. ‘Our business model going forward will be adaptive. Realistically, we have to react to the changing times.’

The glasses brand specs.berlin returned to its normal opening hours two weeks ago and is using the new reopening rules to explore a new business opportunity: to try and create a luxury experience for its customers. ‘We can only service two customers at a time and we ask people to book by appointment,’ says founder Claas Witzel. ‘The outcome of this couldn’t be better: customers have said how much they enjoy having more time dedicated to them.’

Having fewer customers hasn’t been good for the company’s bottom line so far, but for Claas, the real tragedy is not having all his team back at work. ‘I’ll only be really happy when I’ve got all my employees back full-time,’ he says. However, since the government is intent on keeping the number of people in-store to a minimum, it looks like that won’t be for a while. While businesses in Berlin are tiptoeing their way back to normality, there’s a long way to go yet.

Illustration: R. Fresson

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