By Gerhard E May and Dylan Martinez
LONDON (Reuters) – Horlis Ramirez packed silk-bagged shoes in boxes in his empty shop in London's West End shopping district, expressing fears that the coronavirus could kill his business.
"Not a single customer went through this door this week," Ramirez, manager of Bowen Shoes, a boutique shoe retailer near Piccadilly, told Reuters.
The streets outside, usually full of shoppers and tourists, were practically empty.
Small businesses in the upscale West End of London say the slowdown in business caused by the corona virus outbreak is already pushing them to the edge – before a possible complete blockage in London that the government may need, like some other major European cities, to do .
The New West End company, a trading group that represents 600 retailers and businesses in central London's shopping district, said that visitor numbers had already dropped by 50%. The decline increased daily and endangered tens of thousands of jobs.
In a traditional men's outfitters on Jermyn Street, an area that is world famous for their bespoke shirts, the assistants were busy refolding items on glass counters in front of traditional wooden shelves with colorful ties, socks, suspenders and handkerchiefs.
"If it goes on like this … it would have a pretty big impact on business. The shops in the city are already closing, so we are sure we would follow suit," said Nichols Ramiz-Fugler, retail director at the outfitters of the gentleman, new and lingwood.
"Look after yourself and everyone else"
A number of shops in the area have already closed. Signs have been placed in their windows accusing the corona virus, and their owners said they hoped the closure would be temporary.
"We look forward to welcoming you back to our stores soon. Until then, please take care of yourself and each other," said a sign in the luxury shoe store Stuart Weitzman.
Small bespoke retailers aren't the only ones suffering from it. The global Burberry brand expected sales to drop 80% in the last two weeks of March due to store closings.
The slowdown was gradual at first, said Barry Klein, general manager of Old Bond Street Luxury Men's Grooming, before dozens of shaving brushes and combs.
"Suddenly towards the end of last week … everything came to a standstill more or less overnight," he said.
The businesses could benefit from some measures in a huge government package of loan guarantees, tax cuts, grants, and other aids, announced by Finance Minister Rishi Sunak on Tuesday. However, it was unclear whether this would be enough to survive the coming weeks.
"(Sunak) has announced it will do everything necessary to support the business and has shown that it can respond to the changing needs of retailers," said Helen Dickinson, General Manager of the British Retail Consortium.
"While these are the right decisions today, the government may need to take further action if the impact of the situation is fully felt."
At Bowen Shoes, manager Ramirez said there was a possibility that his business wouldn't make it, "We're having big problems. I don't know if and how long we can keep going with this nightmare, the corona virus."
(Letter from Sarah Young; editorship from Michael Holden and Gareth Jones)