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My Virtual Neighbourhood: Local Businesses Go Online in Lockdown

London in lockdown has many local businesses carrying on the only way possible now – online. We spoke with Jenna Fansa, co-founder of a new website My Virtual Neighbourhood which is a directory of neighbourhood businesses offering online shopping.

Please introduce yourself and My Virtual Neighbourhood…

Hello, I’m Jenna Fansa – a mother of two (age 3 and 7) from Stoke Newington.  I trained as a journalist and worked in PR before taking time out to have the children. Together with my husband Basil, I recently launched My Virtual Neighbourhood in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. It’s a lifeline during lockdown – highlighting which local businesses in each area are delivering or open for trade.

How did you come up with the idea for the site?

Through our business The Local Buyers Club (a discount card and membership club promoting independent businesses), we heard first hand from traders about the impact lockdown was having. Many have closed and some are uncertain about whether they’ll ever reopen.  But lots have adapted, launched grocery services or added delivery options and they were struggling to let everyone know.

Images in the media of people risking their health queuing in supermarkets seemed crazy when we knew so many independent shops and cafes were well stocked and open for collections or happy to deliver. We could see lots of threads on social media asking which businesses are open.

We were also hearing from people stuck at home that they were struggling to access food. So, we started listing area by area which independent businesses are open for business and which are delivering and it very quickly grew to include much of London. We are asking people to get involved and submit their favourite local businesses via the website.

What response have you had so far?

The response has been incredible – businesses tell us they’ve had a surge in trade through the site and residents tell us knowing there are plenty of businesses delivering food to their doorstep has reduced their anxiety. My Virtual Neighbourhood has been going for two weeks and has been getting thousands of hits every day since day one.

 

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How many neighbourhoods and businesses do you have listed?

So far we’re in 37 neighbourhoods across North and South London and with the help of locals in each area we’ve managed to make each list really comprehensive. We list over 500 businesses and that number is rising every day.

How are businesses added to the site and the listings updated? It’s such a fast changing scene at the moment, with a shop offering delivery one day then deciding to stop the next.

We rely on local people to let us know what local businesses are offering – My Virtual Neighbourhood is a community effort and, for us to help as many residents and businesses as possible we need locals to share it with each other and help with listings.

There’s an ‘add a business’ form on the website, which feeds us the information in a format we can easily upload. It is a huge amount of work for us still as links have to be checked and listings edited – we’re often working until the early hours of the morning.

The picture is changing rapidly – the wonderful thing about small businesses is they are able to make decisions and act on them fast, which means the services that businesses offer does change.  We have an ‘update listing’ button for every listing so residents or businesses can notify us when things change.

 

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What are you hearing from local business owners about how they are doing in this Covid-19 lockdown situation?

Times were already really hard for local businesses – rising rents and changing shopping habits meant many were already struggling to survive. Lockdown is devastating and I think the landscape of small businesses could look very different when hibernation is over! But most of the businesses we speak to are very determined to survive this and the changes they’ve made (offering delivery and switching to online services) and the goodwill they’ve built in their communities will stand them in good stead.

RELATED CONTENT > What Mother Made: Hackney mum’s shop selling handmade childrenswear (online now!)

Why do you think some small businesses started offering delivery and then fairly quickly decided to stop doing it?

In some cases, businesses with big mailing lists underestimated the demand there would be for local delivery and the time it would take to honour those orders.  For businesses that are allowed to remain open during lockdown and which people continue to visit, the demand can be so high that they simply didn’t have the man/woman-power to allocate for delivery runs as well as opening the shop.

Sadly, others found they couldn’t get word out fast enough and there simply wasn’t enough trade to warrant opening kitchens and paying delivery drivers.  Hopefully that’s where My Virtual Neighbourhood can help.

 

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Could you give us a few examples of businesses being innovative about their services and offerings to stay afloat?

We’re blown away by how quickly businesses have adapted.  When lockdown started, a new business had just started operating The Clarence Tavern in Stoke Newington – the timing couldn’t have been worse.  But they found a way through – and now offer a delivery service of prepared dishes, cheese, bread, store cupboard essentials and fruit and veg.

Lucky Voice runs a string of karaoke bars, which are closed for the foreseeable future – so they’ve shifted their emphasis to a home karaoke subscription service, giving residents the chance to sing during lockdown using their laptops or tablets.

Catering companies, like Piptree Catering in Isleworth, which would usually cater big events are now making meals for everyone – ready to heat at home.

Can you give us a few examples of small businesses offering delivery that people might not expect to offer delivery?

Most local bookshops have launched delivery services – there’s even one (Telling Tales) which operates from a canal boat that’s able to deliver. All the breweries deliver. If you can’t organise a piss up in a brewery – you can definitely organise one at home!  One cocktail bar (Ladies & Gents) will deliver bottled cocktails to your door! Even hardware shops (including Amy’s Housewares) are delivering now.

 

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Why is it important for Londoners to order delivery from local businesses during lockdown?

The survival of independent businesses depends on locals using them – especially during lockdown. If everyone relies on big supermarkets and the likes of Amazon, we’ll lose our lovely small businesses and, when lockdown is over, our high streets will look very different and will have lost some of their magic. Small business owners are going to a tremendous effort to continue to offer a service during lockdown – supporting them is the right thing to do.

 

 

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Do you think there are any businesses that are actually thriving during the lockdown – that it’s playing to their strengths?

The fruit and veg companies must be doing a pretty good trade at the moment and I gather some of the wine shops are doing well.

What are your favourite local businesses to order from during lockdown?

I love the fact that you can order books and jigsaws to your door! In our house lockdown has brought a slower pace of life during the day and it’s great to be able to get supplies of things that help pass the time with the kids – I’m also a big fan of cheese and wine deliveries and we’ve relied heavily on getting a veg box delivered each week.

Follow My Virtual Neighbourhood here:

Website / Facebook / Instagram / Twitter

 

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