The impact of the pandemic on ethnically diverse high streets
Ethnic minority communities are over-represented in retail and food retail sectors, as workers and entrepreneurs, which have been heavily impacted by the pandemic, post-pandemic and Brexit contexts. The follow data sets explore the impact of Covid19 on Brick Lane and the ethnic entrepreneurs who trade there. Key findings are listed below summarizing land uses, employment, business activity and business closure.
Returning to map Brick Lane between COVID-19 lockdowns (November 2020 and April 2021) emphasised the importance of place for a high street mostly dependent on cultural consumerism, tourism, and office worker trade. Businesses in Brick Lane have been under threat from high rental values, and the high dependency on tourism and office workers that dramatically fell during the pandemic and multiple lockdowns.
We found that the overall configuration of the street and the kind of retail offering did not change. The street’s ground floor retail activities remain oriented to food and drink, though there is some decline (to 37% from 43%), with a sustained market in hair and beauty services (5%).
The northern side of the street remains a site for vintage shops, and trade bespoke and luxury items. In contrast the southern side is visibly under stress and many of the Bangladeshi owned restaurants have closed and/or changed their offering as restaurants have been particularly affected by the lockdown restrictions on non-essential trade and indoor gathering.
Ground floor retail activity
We found that the majority of respondents stated that they had received some form of state assistance, such as furlough schemes and rates relief (83%), and that these had been essential for staying afloat. However, for others, this scheme did not apply.
73% of our respondents had managed to keep the majority of their staff, although for many this was on the basis of reducing hours. Many businesses are proprietor run (52%) and for these businesses we found family has stepped in to assist through this period. We also recorded many acts of solidarity and kindness through in-kind or financial support across the street.
The overall story is of a stark economic downturn. Many business owners, especially Bangladeshi restaurateurs, referred to the Lane as ‘a ghost town’. 76 per cent of respondents reported that business was significantly down, with the majority anecdotally estimating a loss of up to two-thirds of trade. The words ‘very down’, ‘substantially down’, ‘devastated’ by ‘50%’ and even ‘70%’ were recorded.
Many respondents had gone online to trade (72%), although there was wide variability in this practice and success rates. Those who found success online tended to already have an online presence and client base in contrast to the restaurant trade who tended to see online as a way to stay afloat.
Shop Usage Conversion and Shop Closure
With the kind of footfall that sustained Brick Lane decimated during lockdown much of the food trade operated through online delivery services. However this model was not felt by many business owners (especially restaurant owners) to be viable or sustainable. In contrast we saw local efforts, particularly by a younger demographic, entering the street successfully with new retail offerings beyond retail such as community spaces for religion, cultural exchange and ‘hanging out’.
Whilst 56 per cent of shops were open the majority of these were operating under reduced hours, with reduced staffing, and in some cases by appointment only. Consequently, looking at closures only – in April 2021 29 per cent of shops had closed (compared to 9 per cent in 2019) – does not sufficiently capture the full impact of COVID on businesses. Some businesses were prospering catering to new economies around bicycle mobility and home décor (both industries that have flourished during lockdown). We found COVID 19 had exacerbated existing challenges particularly for the Bangladeshi/Indian restaurant trade. Whilst in 2014 there were 35 curry houses, just before the pandemic, there were 20 restaurants, and by 2021 this had dropped to just 18.
(Visual and Online Survey)