Anyone who’s made a success of themselves in business will tell you that being agile is essential to keeping a step ahead.
It’s certainly been key for Gerald Voisin, Chairman of Voisins Department Store, as he explains to Rosie Allsopp
People still wanted to shop
When the States of Jersey ordered businesses to shut down at the end of March, due to coronavirus restrictions, the shops may have been ordered to close, but peoples’ appetite to shop was undiminished.
For Voisins it meant stepping up their online offering and telephone ordering service. The store had an online presence and had recently upgraded the website. The timing was fortunate as it was ‘soft’ launched in February, a few weeks before lockdown. However, when lockdown happened, not only did the shop close, Gerald says initially they didn’t offer an online service either.
“We were told that the expectation from government was that all retailers should shut so we felt compelled to shut it down. So we delivered the orders that we had taken on the weekend before lockdown and then we stopped it.”
After two weeks, he received permission to have staff come in and take online and telephone orders and have them delivered.
So from the middle of April through until when we reopened we had this delivery service going. And even when we reopened in May we were still getting a lot of telephone orders.”
Customers were eager to use the new ways of shopping.
“We saw a significant surge in online business and also telephone orders as well. We don’t have everything that we sell listed on our website. Sales haven’t suddenly dropped off now that we’re open, we’re still seeing high levels of online use and we’re putting more and more products online as well so it’s good.”
Learning on the hop is a less than ideal way of operating a business, but Gerald says it’s been a useful exercise in responding to customer demand.
“It’s what we needed to do anyway, we needed to give customers the option of how they shop at Voisins. What we’ve also found is that people like the telephone system as well. We’ll probably continue with some sort of telephone ordering service for our customers.”
It’s also helping to inform how Voisins will go forward in the ‘new normal’.
“We were always going to do online, so Covid hasn’t changed that. What was happening, even before Covid, was that retail was going through a difficult time.
“We had already recognised that we needed to change. We need to reposition ourselves so that we give customers a bit more than they are getting online so we need to be more welcoming, more entertaining, we need to improve significantly our level of customer service.”
A new trading environment
He says Covid has made them face the need to reorganise Voisin’s management structure.
“We’re just implementing a new management reorganisation now. But we were going to have to do that anyway.”
There will also be the need to examine trading patterns, which may not return to the way they were before the pandemic.
“I think one of the big differences, possibly, if offices don’t reopen and office workers don’t come back to the level we had before, we may see a permanent change in our trading pattern because pre-Covid or BC as I call it – Before Covid – we would have a tremendous peak at lunchtime when all the office workers came into the store to shop. Voisins Kitchen would be full of diners and all of that has changed.
“When the weather is very warm, everybody relocates their office home or to the beach. King Street is absolutely deserted so what we see is it’s more influenced by weather. It if’s not exceptionally warm and sunny, Saturdays are busier than they used to be.”
Further adjustments may be necessary, he says.
“We’re still holding our breath, whether office workers will come back or not, now that we’ve moved to Level One it will be interesting to see if we do get a move back to our traditional trading patterns from September. Of course in August a lot of people have taken holidays anyway so I wouldn’t expect to see a return to traditional trading patterns in this month.”
I ask him for his view of the States’ handling of the crisis.
“I think initially there was criticism that they were a bit slow but no-one’s been in this situation before so maybe there were slow, maybe businesses were impatient. Businesses were getting very stressed out because they knew that they had to act. They could not afford to keep on their entire staff for an unknown number of weeks or months. Something had to give and we’d already seen the furlough scheme in the UK and that seemed to be a good solution. I think that the solution that Jersey came up with was a better solution because in the UK staff were either furloughed or they weren’t. Whereas in Jersey the co-funding scheme allowed some employees to come back on a part-time basis or even full-time but the company still kept the co-funding. They get a tick for that – well done.”
Where do we go from here?
He’s also supportive of the idea to kick-start the economy.
The SOJ are now giving £100 for everyone to spend. I thought it was quite a good idea. They need to get money into the economy and need to get people to go out and spend. What better way than giving them £100 to get them out and about. We are still seeing people in the store that haven’t been out and about since March. They are the slightly older people but people are just worried.
Where now for the business?
“The trouble with Covid is that all of your strategic plans go completely out of the window. We are planning to launch a loyalty scheme, we’d planned to launch it at the beginning of May but we had to put that on hold. We’re still planning to launch it. So some of our strategic plans are still there and we just need to ratchet them up again but we had to use the filter of ‘is this the right thing to do now?’
“I think it’s a question of getting back on track. Covid hasn’t destroyed everything and we can pick it up again and we need to get on and do it.”