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Hitchin in Hertfordshire is known for having more than 100 independent outlets, an achievement that helped it to become runner-up in the Great British High Street Awards last year.
Now the town centre businesses have united for a rebirth that epitomises the very best neighbourhood spirit.
Retailers have taken the new rules – which require shops selling “non-essential” goods such as clothes, books and jewellery to change layouts to protect staff and customers – and made them part of a new beginning.
Gatwards, is the UK’s oldest familyrun jewellers, having opened in 1760. After staying open through two world wars and the Spanish flu pandemic, the eighth generation of the family at the helm, Charlotte Gatward, was devastated by lockdown. She says: “It was a mixture of shock, disbelief and almost grief.” After furloughing nine of 10 staff, one kept on to handle online orders, she aims to reopen with four, initially five days a week from 10am to 3pm.
The mother of two says: “We will try this for two weeks and then review it. It is just baby steps at the moment as we don’t know how quickly people will return to the high street.”
To make it a welcoming experience, one counter will become a hygiene station for customers to use hand sanitiser when they enter, with only three allowed in at a time. For security reasons they will be asked to remove any face coverings on entering, so their image is captured by CCTV cameras, before putting it back on to approach the counters.
And looking for an engagement or wedding ring will be even more relaxed than before, with customers encouraged to make an appointment so staff can spend time helping them.
Charlotte says: “I think this will be the model going forward. We will be more like consultants who sit and spend time with customers.”
She has invested in two ultraviolet cleaners so customers will still be able to try on items, which will be cleaned before and after they are touched.
Just yards away, Katrina Raill, 53, runs Etcetera, a home fashion and gift store, with her 74-year-old mother Anne, who has been self-isolating.
Katrina spent Thursday on her hands and knees using 200ft of tape to mark two-metre distances in her shop. The mother of two plans reduced hours of 10pm to 4pm, Monday to Saturday. Customers will be asked to use hand sanitiser, with a maximum of four allowed in at the same time.
“I have taken away some greeting cards as that is where people spend the most time browsing and touching them,” she says. “I have left a limited choice on display and if customers want to see more we will take them outside to have a look at the cards, so they are not stopping the flow of shoppers.”
Katrina will also oversee a 72-hour quarantine of any returned items and of all deliveries.
On Hermitage Road, Fabio Vincenti, 36, will reopen Fabio’s Gelato, an artisan ice-cream emporium, on Friday, and focus on 12-5pm trade instead of evenings which used to be his busiest time.
“Without the restaurant trade we don’t want to be the only business open on the high street in the evenings, so we’ll have reduced hours until July when hopefully restaurants will open,” he says. Before the lockdown Fabio and wife Hannah had tables and chairs outside but these are now being used to create a one-way “runway” past his counter and out of the store.
Fabio has also decided to stop serving ice-cream cones to prevent them being passed for a lick between friends and family. His gelato will be served in cups with spoons for anyone sharing.
Back on the high street, Kay Batley, 58, runs Savvi Travel with husband Daniel, 57. After long lockdown hours helping customers get refunds or rebook, they look forward to reopening.
A maximum of two staff will sit at desks two metres apart and behind screens, one customer at a time sitting at the front of the store. The only downside is that the friendly office’s free tea and coffee won’t be on offer.
On Arcade Walk, Jenifer McDonagh, 41, of Hooray & Co – a boutique selling clothes and wooden toys for children – is planning to open only on Fridays and Saturdays at first, from June 19, as she has a son, six, and a four-year-old daughter. Only one customer will be allowed in at a time after using hand sanitiser.
Until both her children go back to school she will focus on online orders which she has been delivering herself locally during lockdown.
To help its traders comply with social distancing rules Hitchin town centre management will pedestrianise more of its high street, making it easier for shoppers to step into roads and skirt any queues outside stores. It has already provided PPE packs to retailers.
Town centre manager Tom Hardy says: “We are putting hand sanitiser stations around the town centre, offering discounts for deep cleaning services and setting up a website, Hitchin Basket, which tells people where they can buy what they are looking for and whether click and collect is offered.”
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