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Crates Local - an independent Horsham business that has successfully evolved to take on the COVID19 challenge

Visit Horsham has been talking to our members to try and understand the full impact that COVID 19 has had on their businesses. Unsurprisingly many have been hit hard. The good news is that many have since adapted their business models and are now thriving again!

Crates Local is one such business, and they have kindly agreed to share their experiences in a Q & A session with us:

What was the initial impact COVID-19 and was this before or after March 23 when lockdown started?

The lockdown hit us hard immediately with a 50% decline in turnover having to close our coffee shop but that was soon followed by huge demand for fresh produce through the shop which of course remained open.

Because our supply chain is so short coming directly from local producers, we had no problem getting in enough to meet the demand but were quickly overwhelmed with orders.

How have you adapted your business model to react to the new situation?

We knew we didn’t have the resources to deliver which so many people needed but could easily work out safe contactless collection at the door of our closed coffee shop. We teamed up with local taxi company AAA2B to deliver. It was ideal for them as their customer base had almost totally disappeared.

We also had to switch to fruit & veg boxes and generic grocery bags simply to ensure we could get enough food to people. The phone was ringing non-stop and enquiries flooding in by email. I was literally spending whole days on the phone processing orders so it was obvious we had to embrace online ordering. Our website provider, Britweb, got on the case creating an online cart in a matter of days.

Even before we’d fully tested the online cart, let alone promoted it, the orders pinged in at an amazing pace. I still have no idea how those first people found it! For the first couple of weeks of online, we turned around hundreds of boxes. It freed up so much time for us, enabling us to physically put together more boxes but to also manage the business so much better and embrace even more ways for customers to shop safely.

During all this, the shop remained open throughout this but on reduced hours and serving from the door, all contactlessly. Our gin tasting ex-airline trolley was repurposed to host the card payment machine and then a quick twirl to transport the shopping bags to customers waiting at the door!

We had divided our staff into two teams - each team working for two weeks then off for two weeks. We divided the premises into two, with us working in the back doing the veg boxes and not mixing with either team. Kitchen facilities were even created for the shop team in the back office.

What successes and challenges have you experienced during this time?

As lockdown continued, we saw more and more new customers, some ordering online and even more coming to the shop. Our regular customers were buying even more than ever, many doing all their food shopping with us and really grateful for not having to go to supermarkets that were considered a riskier environment.

The first few weeks were incredibly fraught, we were constantly thinking on our feet trying to get systems in place and, most importantly ensuring the safety of our staff and customers. Even before lockdown, we had created a lobby in the shop for one person at a time so switching to serving at the door was an easy step.

In those early days when bombarded with new customers, we experienced some very desperate and, on occasions, angry people. Not many but they couldn’t understand why we couldn’t deliver to them immediately with exactly what they wanted. Really, they were angry with the supermarkets not being able to deliver within weeks, but some thought we could fill that gap for all of them! Our shop team also faced some unusual behaviour that we just don’t usually see at Crates but they coped amazingly.

However, life soon settled down, our systems working well and all customers, old & new had become totally delightful! We even got to the point of being able to answer the phone again and really lucky to be awarded a Coast to Capital grant.

How has the experience affected the long-term way you run your business? Assuming one day we will be completely free of the virus, what (if anything) will you carry on doing that you were not doing previously?

The Coast to Capital grant enabled us to set up our new ‘Shop at Home’ service. All those new people getting veg boxes had now discovered the tasty local produce Crates has always proudly offered. They wanted more of it and we now had the time to serve them remotely via phone or video link. The grant enabled additional IT equipment and a rather nifty e-bike and trailer for free local delivery. Customers love it, we also love it!

So, with now three ways to shop, Crates is thriving. Our customer base has increased, and our regulars have been using us so much more which is fantastic.

Thank you for your answers, is there anything else you would like to add?

We are planning to open the coffee shop for take-away soon and that will be really exciting. We have no plans yet for sit-down and that’s fine, that can wait.

We cannot thank enough our great staff, customers and other Horsham businesses that pulled out all the stops, helped or promoted what we were doing.

On a personal note, friends and family were incredibly supportive. Our neighbours even cooked for us when the working hours were long and stressful. We supplied the produce and they cooked up a storm! We hope to get a long rest down the line and Crates Horsham is a great place to be!

By Gavin Hewins | June 3, 2020, 4 p.m.