As ‘non-essential’ shops begin to re-open this week, one of Cumbria Tourism’s Strategic Partners, The Grasmere Gingerbread Shop, reveals how customer demand drove, guided and inspired the 166-year-old business during the Covid-19 lockdown – and provides an excellent example of how shops will begin to move forward in the coming weeks.

Closing the shop to the public for the first time since Sarah Nelson invented Grasmere Gingerbread® in 1854 was an emotional moment for Joanne Hunter, co-director of the historic business. “Even during two world wars our famous green door remained open,” she reflects. “But closing for Covid-19 was not only a legal requirement but a moral imperative as people’s health must always be prioritised over the bottom line.”

Yet, when the ovens were switched off, Joanne momentarily feared how she – and the world-famous Cumbrian business – would endure lockdown. She need not have worried. “Not only did we immediately see an upsurge in mail order, but people were emailing and telephoning us from first thing in the morning to 10 o’clock at night,” she reveals.

Self-isolating at home, Joanne’s private office became a frenetic hub of activity. From it she wrote weekly e-newsletters, organised more than 200 parcels of complimentary Grasmere Gingerbread® to be sent to frontline NHS staff and carers, engaged other small Cumbrian suppliers by promoting their products online and even enjoyed chatting to celebrities sending Grasmere Gingerbread® to their friends.

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Moreover, lockdown reinforced the personal nature of the business. “Many older customers telephone in their orders,” says Joanne. “So we listened to their lockdown traumas and tried to offset any loneliness by having old-fashioned conversations. It’s not all about money. Equally, people – many from different countries – have enjoyed reminiscing about holidays in the Lake District. Ordering Grasmere Gingerbread® has helped them to relive happier times.”

Surviving Storm Desmond in 2015, which destroyed the A591 and partially isolated Grasmere for six months, was a learning experience. “Then, I put my head in my hands and often my thoughts would go around in circles,” she admits. “But whilst I was anxious about Covid-19, I prepared myself professionally and personally for what I knew was coming down the line. By being proactive I didn’t have much time to think negatively about the future.”

Meanwhile, in addition to handling staff furloughing, administration and bills, co-director Andrew Hunter anticipated and prepared for a ‘soft’ opening of the shop. He created a socially-distanced and sympathetically designed entry and exit route, instituted a new health & hygiene regime for staff, as well as providing PPE and plastic shielding at the shop counter itself. Initially, payment will be by card only although Andrew does not welcome a cashless society, concerned it may marginalise many people.

“At the shop it will be one customer in, one customer out, although ‘customer’ could be a family unit,” he explains. “I would never underplay how serious this pandemic is, but we are social animals and our instinct is to get back to some sort of communal ‘normality’, even if ‘that normality’ is different to before.”

Managing Director of Cumbria Tourism, Gill Haigh, says, “Lockdown has brought with it many shifts in behaviours and attitudes including a greater appreciation of locally produced food. Grasmere Gingerbread is a great example of the resilience of Cumbrian businesses, and the measures it is putting in place to ensure a safe, enjoyable shopping experience is great to hear. The example shown by Joanne, Andrew and the team, is an inspiration to us all and shows that by working together, we can get Cumbria’s economy great again.”

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