London is in lockdown 2 and many local businesses are carrying on the only way they can, once again – online. We spoke with Jenna Fansa, co-founder of the website My Virtual Neighbourhood which is a directory of neighbourhood businesses offering online shopping. They launched during the first Covid lockdown and have continued to grow! Read on to find out about their guide and how you can support small businesses in the run up to Christmas, even in lockdown.
Please introduce yourself and My Virtual Neighbourhood…
Hello, I’m Jenna Fansa – a mother of two (age 4 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, we 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. With Christmas fast approaching and another lockdown beginning, I hope people will use the site to find brilliant small businesses to shop with online! We have a fab section just for gifts!
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 the first lockdown was having. Many have closed and some are uncertain about whether they’ll ever reopen. But lots have adapted, launched their shops online, expanded to 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.
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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 reduced their anxiety. My Virtual Neighbourhood has had hundreds of thousands of hits since we launched in March and we’ve teamed up with some local councils to add new areas – they’re promoting our platform as a way of supporting independent businesses.
How many neighbourhoods and businesses do you have listed?
So far we’re in 70 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 2,000 businesses and that number is rising every day.
We have an amazing overview of the independent businesses in London and, as things change and the updates flood in, we get a clear picture of how they’re responding to the outbreak. The government’s decision to allow click and collect this lockdown offers a very small ray of hope – I just hope the public will make a conscious effort to support them instead of relying on bigger online retailers.
What’s your message to shoppers in London during lockdown 2?
These months before Christmas are fundamental to the survival of small businesses. The capital is bursting with brilliant independent businesses selling exciting products and food. If you want our city to retain its character and charm and our high streets not to be homogenous then now, more than ever, we need to support them! Life is so much more interesting when you support smaller shops and restaurants, the quality is higher, the gifts more personal and it feels better knowing you’re helping them and the local economy.
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How are businesses added to the site and the listings updated?
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.
What are you hearing from local business owners about how they are doing in this Covid-19 lockdown situation?
Just as small businesses began to rally after the first long lockdown, they’ve been hit with another. Many small shops depend on these months before Christmas to survive so having to close in this ‘golden quarter’ is devastating. They’re fearful lockdown will lead people to shop with bigger online retailers. Some are hoping they can drum up enough online and click-and-collect trade to carry them through these hard times and that’s something we hope we can help with.
Pre-Covid-19, 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.
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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 and new businesses have grown. We’ve seen a real surge in eco companies – among them are Top Up Truck a fabulous start-up bringing packaging-free refills to your door in a trusty old milk float. The Clarence Tavern in Stoke Newington opened just as the first lockdown hit – they kept going by selling bread, cheese and veggies and it has been wonderful to see them able to operate as a gastro pub in the months between lockdowns. People with no background in retail who lost their work in the pandemic have switched to selling products like grocery boxes and small breweries have ramped up their delivery services. One London milliner has added face masks to the products they offer.
What are your favourite local businesses to order from during lockdown?
Now that Christmas is looming I’m constantly checking out gorgeous gift shops that deliver or offer click and collect – places like Know and Love, Outlandish Creations, Lark and Dandy Star all have really fun stuff and Earlybird cards have a fab selection of Christmas cards and wrap, which they design themselves. I’m a big fan of Carv handbags too, which are handmade by a fabulous London mum and of Ince Umbrellas, an East End company which has survived two world wars. I’m also a big fan of cheese and wine deliveries and we’ve relied heavily on getting a veg box delivered each week.
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