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Church firms struggle to stay afloat    

07 August 2020

Pandemic has forced some to fold, but others are adapting

A screenshot from the website of Mander Organs, which ceased trading on Monday of last week

A screenshot from the website of Mander Organs, which ceased trading on Monday of last week

CHURCH–focused businesses have spoken of adapting to the challenges posed by the coronavirus. Most say that they feel “optimistic” about the future; but one well-known firm, Mander Organs, has gone into liquidation.

“They’re playing ‘Shop’”

Sales within the retail sector picked up by 13.9 per cent in June compared with May, the Office for National Statistics has reported. Consumer confidence remains weak, however, despite businesses’ hoping for a return to pre-pandemic levels. The UK is still predicted to be on course for a recession since GDP growth fell by 2.2 per cent in the period between January and March.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) criticised plans, announced last week by the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to introduce an online sales tax to protect high-street shops from competition. The BRC said that it would raise prices for consumers.

Businesses such as Wippell & Co., who supply clerical and graduation wear, have struggled to recover after sales dropped by 90 per cent in the period from March. Its director, Robin Richardson, said that niche businesses were struggling to benefit from the rise in consumer confidence: “We have tried to diversify, but we’re a niche market. Retail can only pick up if a product is bought by the general public — but we don’t sell to the general public. We can only sell a clerical shirt to clerics, so, until churches reopen, it’s hard for things to pick up.

“We are the largest producer of clerical robes in the country. Two-thirds of our business comes from university graduations, while one third is from the Church. There are no graduations at the moment, and no deliveries to the Lambeth Conference, the Church of Scotland General Assembly, and no orders to US theological colleges. Between March and June, only one week’s worth of work was created via our website. We employ 50 people, and the Government furlough scheme has helped, but we haven’t really been able to adapt. The only way we could diversify in the future is through providing other kinds of specialist clothing.”

He continued: “You have to be positive. The last couple of days have been quite good for business, but all we can do is try and hang on with the government support.”

Priory Automotive, which sells cars to members of the clergy, managed to reopen in June, after closing for two months. The company’s director, Steve Frost, said this week: “With zero sales for two months, financially everything was difficult, especially as we do not work to great margins with our sales. But we ‘cut our cloth’ accordingly and got through to our reopening in June.

“Being quite a small business, everyone was kept on, and we only came into work for safety and security checks. Priory have always offered a free nationwide delivery, and this was actually a bonus, as it was not too difficult to make it now contactless, for the safety of everyone involved. We are finding sales are down on where they should be, month on month, but in these difficult times, it is understandable.”

Anne Wray Independent Financial Adviser, which provides independent financial advice to clergy, has also adapted. The company’s founder, Anne Wray, said: “We have maintained ‘business as usual’ as far as possible, but we recognised very early on before lockdown that we would need to be prepared for us all working remotely.

“We now work far more efficiently than ever, regularly using Zoom for our weekly and ad-hoc staff meetings, and we have been able to persuade our clients that this new IT was not so difficult at all. Travel was no longer necessary, and we are mindful of the benefit to the environment. Our client portal has been up and running since last year, and enables us to provide information to our clients securely and quickly without the need for ‘wet’ signatures.”

The sales-team leader at the church furnishers Vanpoulles, Lisa-Jane Hurst, said that the Government’s furlough scheme had been “the saving grace” for the company during the past four months.

“Over the last few weeks, our staff have been returning back to the factory slowly, and orders, although not in the same capacity, have continued to drip into the business,” she said.

“We remain optimistic, and, once churches are able to open fully, we hope the orders will increase to a level that is sustainable to avoid the need for redundancies. So far, we have been able to operate with limited staff and keep the business ticking over; however, if localised lockdowns do become a normal routine, then the situation may change.”

The suppliers of clerical wear Watts & Co. said that the company was “weathering the current crisis with the same resilience and adaptability that saw it through two World Wars.

“Despite the temporary closure of our Westminster showroom, and the inevitable downturn in sales, the loyalty of our customers has enabled our team to carry on working on orders from home.

“We’ve also taken the opportunity to plan new ranges and explore new marketing avenues. Through a combination of prudent management and staff flexibility, we are confident that we can continue to provide our unique service to the Church in the months and years ahead.”

The charity Hymns Ancient & Modern, which owns the Church Times, also runs the Church House Bookshop. The publishing director of Hymns A&M, Christine Smith, said at the end of last week: “Church House Bookshop closed in March and reopened in June with reduced hours. Customers are returning slowly, as public confidence remains fragile, though mail-order and web sales have remained busy. To encourage trade, we introduced free postage and packaging for all UK online orders, and ran this for over three months.

“We offered more regular discounted promotions, such as a ‘Book of the Week’ and ‘Author of the Week’, as well as regular themed promotions featuring titles not only from our own lists, but from the publishers we distribute from the warehouse or stock in the shop. Though all physical events have been cancelled, we have been active at online events and have nurtured partnerships with HeartEdge, The Tablet, and Greenbelt, among others.

“Our warehouse has remained open throughout, though with reduced teams working alternate shifts to maintain strict social distancing. The overwhelming response to our summer sale even meant that we had to suspend it for a few days to allow the warehouse teams to catch up with the sheer volume of orders.”

The London-based organ builder Mander Organs, whose instruments include those in St Paul’s, Chelmsford and Rochester Cathedrals, Westminster Abbey, and the Royal Albert Hall, announced last week that it had gone out of business.

A statement on its website and Facebook page reads: “Mander Organs Ltd profoundly regrets to announce that, owing to cash-flow difficulties and the inability to secure sufficient work, the company has ceased trading as of Monday 27 July 2020.

“The management and staff would like to express their gratitude to our clients and friends for the loyalty and support they have given over the years, and particularly in the last few difficult months. Our affairs have been placed in the hands of an independent insolvency practitioner, Insolve Plus Limited, to whom all enquiries should be addressed.”

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