In the wake of the pandemic and economic fallout, independent retailers are facing serious challenges. In a new series, FN will spotlight store owners who are taking smart steps to weather the storm.
This week, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a gradual relaxation of coronavirus confinement restrictions commencing May 11. This will begin with commerce, services, industry and schools. Restaurants, theaters, museums and the like will remain closed, as will borders with non-European countries. So what does this mean in reality for struggling independent retailers?
Liliane Joshua opened independent luxury retailer Montaigne Market in Paris in 2005. She launched her e-commerce operation in the middle of March, just two days before the country’s lockdown commenced.
Joshua had already been planning the move since the last quarter of 2019, but the impact of the virus forced her to accelerate the process. The physical store had been suffering since the city’s terrorist attacks of 2016, she explained, adding that the situation had been compounded by the more recent Yellow Vest demonstrations and national strikes. “The coronavirus was like the final punch in the face for us,” she said.
For her website launch, Joshua was only able to get about 20% of her merchandise online, as the virus spread across Europe and social distancing rules took into effect. She used images provided by brands because there was no time to shoot and she didn’t want to put her staff at risk. “I had to go ahead though,” she said. “It was the only way to save all our hard work over the last 15 years.”
Being a small business owner, Joshua knows how hard it is for struggling independent brands. For that reason, she has been meticulous at ensuring the smaller labels her store carries get paid. She has not drawn a salary for herself for the last month, instead prioritizing vendors and partners. “Those brands have always trusted me and I refuse to let them down,” she said. “We all depend on each other. And without these brands, fashion will die.”
When it comes to state aid, the reality, Joshua said, is more complicated than the theory. While the French government has pledged loans to aid businesses (25% of profits declared in the previous tax year), she has yet to benefit because it is the banks who make the decisions.
Joshua applied for the aid after it was announced last month and is still awaiting approval. However, she hopes that banks will become less fastidious following President Macron’s pledge this week to simplify the process for assistance. Without it, Joshua said she will be unable to make orders for spring ’21. She remains resolute, though, vowing to “fight for it until my last breath.”
The gradual lifting of confinement restrictions as of May 11 is a similarly double-edged sword.
Joshua pointed out that, with restaurants and hotels still closed for an undisclosed period of time — not to mention national borders — the walk-in and tourist traffic on which she depends will be minimal. “I’m very scared that if we open again on May 11, we will have few customers and less aid,” she sighed.
For this reason, she is being cautious about immediately reopening her physical store, located on Avenue Matignon just off the Avenue des Champs–Élysées.
For now, Montaigne Market is benefiting from the goodwill of its landlord, who has agreed to defer rent payments, but as soon as Joshua reopens, the money will be owed in full. “But how can I do that when sales are down by 80%?” she asked.
Likewise, while the government has pledged to pay 80% of staff wages during the closure (funds Joshua has yet to receive), she will be liable to pay her staff as usual after reopening.
However, despite everything, the retailer is trying to remain positive and proactive, going to the store herself every day to pack up and FedEx online orders. Her most popular items, she said, are lower-priced feel-good purchases such as T-shirts, accessories and beauty products, rather than more-expensive pieces from top brands such as Paris Texas and Saint Laurent.
In the coming weeks, Joshua plans to up her brand’s social media presence, connecting with customers via informative Instagram Live videos with beauty pioneer Dr. Barbara Strum. If there is one thing that this pandemic has taught us, she said, it’s that “now is the time to be more human.”
“We can’t continue to be so individualist; you need the group energy,” she added.
Joshua also appreciates having the luxury of time. “We were all caught up in a spiral and needed to slow down,” she said. “Now I can cook for my five children and live more in the moment.” This, she concluded, is “the gift that life has given us.”