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Covid’s First Person: The impact Covid has on people and companies around the globe

In a series of stories, the Financial Times’ live Coronavirus Blog explores the effects of the pandemic upon people, businesses, and communities all over the world.

Coronavirus: Literary escapism

Sarah Provan, London

Monique Roffey, a coronavirus-infected woman, published her seventh book in April 2020.

After the majors had rejected her story of a mermaid who came from another time, she went to work with UK-based Peepal Tree Press.

Roffey states, “Indie published my in the eye the storm,” It was a huge success and I did all that I could to make it known.

Trinidadian-born author Crowdfunded PS4,500 to hire a publicist. However, as healthcare crises erupted she was afraid her tale of the mermaids would go unnoticed.

While she struggled to pay rent, book festivals and tours were cancelled due to coronavirus. She says that Covid could have been disastrous for her book. It was at risk of being swept into the Covid pit.”

Monique Roffey, London. A poster of her novel “The Mermaid of Black Conch”, published by Vintage in paperback June 2007.

The lyrical story of love, loneliness and otherness was praised by the literary community and the judges. The prestigious PS30,000 Costa book prize was awarded to the novel in January. Judges praised it as “extraordinary”, captivating, and full of mythic energy.

Bingo, everyone suddenly wanted to know about Aycayia the Mermaid, Roffey says. Roffey (full disclosure), attended the same school near Port-of-Spain that I did.

It has been sold in excess of 60,000 copies online and printed. In June Vintage also published the story in paperback. The Times Bestseller List topped the novel for two weeks in a row this year. It is possible that film rights will follow.

Roffey, who lives in London, says that she has done “against all odds” during Covid. “I have never seen anything quite like it in 20 years of writing. There were many ups as well as downs.

The fantasy novel and folklore she wrote tapped into the desire to read and imagine during dark times of coronavirus-induced lockdowns. Roffey was one of many online authors who launched books and participated in literary festivals. This helped her gain global followers.

The Publishers Association in the UK, which represents journal and book publishers, stated that “in 2020, the nation turned towards books for comfort and escapism” The rise of reading has been a triumph, and both adults as well as children have read more in lockdown than ever before.

According to the UK trade organization, income from fiction increased 16 percent last year, to PS688m. Meanwhile, consumer publications saw a 7% increase to PS2.1bn.

Roffey says that the book was “basically a book which was generally ignored, rejected and published in the initial Covid wave, but that no one registered”.

She adds that while nobody wanted to read the book, billboards featuring its cover suddenly appear all over town.

Motor insurance reform is possible thanks to Miles

Oliver Ralph, London

James Blackham claims that the pandemic prompted people to adopt his usage-based auto insurance idea (c) Miles

By Miles was born out of James Blackham’s belief that insurance for car should be calculated based on how far you drive, and not a flat annual premium.

He lacked the catalyst to persuade motorists that motor insurance with pay-per-mile would be a good idea. That was until 15 months ago, when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

The idea struck home instantly: Drivers were left stranded for many months in their neighborhoods, and they had to pay insurance premiums for cars that were not being used. Customers of By Miles, on the other hand, only paid when they actually used their cars.

Co-founder of the company says that “the product began to work as we expected it to.” Customers started running after the product became more understandable.

The March sales were more than twice as high — an increase of 150 percent compared to a year ago. He says, “We didn’t expect that level of growth.”

Miles delivered the message with television and radio advertising. He also sponsored travel documentaries. This was a departure from traditional posters, which start-ups rely on for their messages.

Blackham states that the pandemic was a “great opportunity” if one can move quickly. It also kept away potential advertisers in TV, particularly those from the travel sector. By Miles was then able to enter the market.

The pandemic created difficulties for the company. Covid-19 was the first to strike, and the company had to postpone a financing round as the time neared completion. In addition, less driving resulted in premiums being lower which impacted revenue growth.

Blackham claims that By Miles has proven that his concept is viable in the face of crisis.

He says the UK insurance industry is “very slow” and that his model would be considered a success when “the whole country has switched to use-based car coverage. “We don’t expect a revolution overnight.”

G Page Flowers sees rosier days as the love for nature blossoms

Mamta Bakar, New York

Gary Page is a New Yorker who worked in the flower trade since 1984. He believes that people have accepted nature throughout the Pandemic. (c) Mamta Bakar/FT

G Page Wholesale Flowers Manhattan took down the shutters of its Manhattan business along with other New York non-essentials businesses, and placed stems covered in brown paper on the footpath.

Gary Page, the owner of Gary’s flower shop, is optimistic and looking forward to brighter times.

His store is flooded with people looking for ranunculuses, calla lilies, and peonies. He believes that the pandemic has made more people naturalists. By the beginning of next year, he expects a return back to pre-pandemic levels.

He says that if everyone feels comfortable in large indoor gatherings, then by autumn we should all be running. My optimistic outlook says it could be 2022 before we reach 2019 levels.

Page has worked in the flower industry since 1984. He says that the Covid-19 pandemic caused his florist to close for three months. It was worse than the financial crisis of 2008-9 and 9/11 terrorist attacks. Wholesalers such as Page, who sell to Ovando or Miho luxury florists and depend on events for their business, saw last year’s results be very grim.

His business was able to weather the pandemic through two $168,000 loan tranches thanks to the Paycheck Protection Program.

As costs rose, his business was in trouble. It was more costly to send flowers to the US due to the pandemic. International flights were also grounded for most of this period.

It was possible to send flowers from France or Italy by road to the Netherlands, and they could then be shipped to you. However, it was difficult to import blooms from Malaysian and Thai countries. This caused a rise in freight costs, which he was forced to pass onto his customers.

Page believes that demand for nature has increased and people are more open to it, particularly those who were living in cities. He sees this post-pandemic as an opportunity to preserve and grow.

He says, “We had an industrial revolution that took us from the agrarian country.” “Now, we are living in the technological revolution. We have been separated from everything around us.”

According to him, the disconnection, which was amplified by the pandemic caused people to plant more flowers and plants that could “create such emotion in people” to counter loneliness.

These purchases have led to educated customers who are better able to identify the quality and make informed decisions about flowers.

Page says, “There’s the Men’s Wearhouse and the Brioni suits.”

North Dakota’s oil boomtown is on the return trail

Matthew Rocco, New York

The US is making progress in the fight against Covid-19 and things look good for Williston, North Dakota, an oil town.

The energy price crash combined with the pandemic caused Williston (North Dakota) to hit an especially rough time in the first half of last year.

Shawn Wenko is Williston’s executive director for economic development. He stated that “there was nothing remarkable to say about 2020.”

Things are improving now that the US has made progress in fighting Covid-19. Wenko stated that it was the most busy quarter in 13 years of economic development, in which he worked with business clients.

Williston saw a rapid growth as oil producers moved to Bakken, the Bakken’s largest oilfield. This was a place that rose in prominence with the US shale boom. According to the US Census Bureau, Williston’s population grew by 82% between 2010-2019.

Wenko worked in the first part of the pandemic on a “patch-and-mainten strategy” that would help local businesses avoid being destroyed.

He is now accepting requests for information from those who are interested in the region and its future economic prospects. Entrepreneurs and businesses are interested in carbon capture technology, and how to reuse byproducts from energy production.

Wenko stated, “We are setting ourselves up to the next boom.”

Additionally, he expects that the retail and restaurant sectors will “take off”, noting that Williston is on the verge of drawing more business to the region. Sanford Health is also building a new clinic and hospital, as well as the Vantis Network which will allow drone operators to operate throughout the state.

There has been a slight uptake in employment in the sector of energy, mainly on the services side.

Wenko stated that it would take some time for the downturn caused by pandemics to be over. However, things look better than I expected.

We weathered this storm better. This is a better outlook than it was.

Shop casualwear, not formal.


In 2016, Nick Wheeler was the founder of Charles Tyrwhitt shirtmakers. His company has rebalanced its stock to more casual clothing due to covid work changes (c. Charlie Bibby/Financial Times).

Office staff found that working remotely allowed them to change their dress style quickly. No more formal attire! However, traditional retailers have not been able to respond to the increasing demand.

Charles Tyrwhitt, a UK-based menswear retailer, changed its tactics after it switched to elastic waists and joggers. The company is well-known for making shirts, suits, and ties but was not able to sell its stock as fast as it wanted due to long lead times.

Although it took some time for the company to have enough casual loungewear, the product range is “flying off of the shelves” according Nick Wheeler. He founded the business 35 years ago as a mail-order retailer.

Wheeler said that the Covid-19 crisis caused the company to reflect on the increasing popularity of casual wear overnight.

It was clear that the business had to provide casual wear for its customers, rather than formal wear at 80 percent. The founder stated that the clothing had to be “fit for purpose” and offered a variety of clothes people wanted to wear.

He said, “Pretty fast it became apparent that what had been an overall trend for the past 10 years would become — at the least in the near term — a significantly increased trend.” We’d been slow to catch up with this trend for the past 20 years. “We’d become somewhat lazy.”

Charles Tyrwhitt ordered casual shirts, sweaters and formalwear but due to delays from global suppliers Charles Tyrwhitt received containers full of suits in June and July. This was four months after customers started working remotely.

He said, “Whatever happens men will always wear clothing, I hope.” We’re currently running 50/50 formal/casual, which I believe is a good ratio. This balance can be especially important if you have to go back 3 days per week. People will feel more at ease when they work.

As he appeals to diners for premium fish, a door-to-door seller makes a lot of sales

Sarah Provan, London

Andy Knapton sells fish from Grimsby to residents in south Cambridgeshire for over two decades. But he claims he’s never experienced such demand like the last 12 months. (c) Sarah Provan/FT

Andy Knapton, who has been selling fish out of his van in Cambridgeshire since the early 20th century, has not seen such demand for his produce from Grimsby. This trend has forced him to shift his business towards retail customers for the last 12 months.

Knapton has seen his sales rise over the last year due to Brexit and pandemics. More people have answered Knapton’s call, while domestic demand for fish and other produce has increased.

However, sales to wholesale customers like restaurants and bars plummeted during Covid-19 lockdowns.

Knapton’s sales have increased steadily since 1992 when he started trading. But, last year was a record-breaking year for demand and sales rose 50%.

He said, “I don’t have the time to grow my wholesale clients.” It takes so long to service them because margins are tight. Retail customers alone are sufficient, plus it is much more profitable financially.

Knapton has seen his sales rise by almost half since November 2020. His gross profit is up 55% and he’s served approximately 53 percent more homes in the last 12 months, as clients spend more time in their kitchen.

This is a significant increase in his work hours, which has increased to 70 hours per semaine over the last 12 months, compared with 55 hours before March 2013.

One-fifth (or less) of his wholesale sales were made in pre-pandemic years. Coronavirus-induced lockdowns have caused this to drop as low as 1%.

Not only has the shift from wholesale to retailers been a result of the pandemic. The Covid-19 hygiene requirements compelled the Director of AK Fisheries, to use a credit card reader instead of relying on cash, cheques or online payments. This tweak has helped his business generate more sales and eased payment.

He said that he resisted the idea for so many reasons, including high charges. But Covid made it possible to move from cash and checks to contactless payment. It has been beneficial for my business.”

Publiated Mon, 19 July 2021 at 08:22.41 +0000

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