You know things are serious when headline sponsors instruct their staff not to attend the world’s biggest dog show. It’s the week after Crufts, sales are a bit flat – unusual – sales usually spike after Crufts. We’ve had a great start to the year so we’re not worried.
Monday, 16 March: the UK Government holds a live tv briefing and suggests that everyone work from home and avoid going out. Orders on our online store grind to a halt. We’ve never seen anything like it. I leave the office feeling physically sick every night this week. Sales pick up over the weekend, but we’re still extremely anxious.
Monday, 23 March: official lockdown announced. Sales stop again. We put recruitment for a new Customer Services Manager on hold. We make our building off-limits to anyone except Jenny and I while we navigate all the guidance on keeping staff safe, then review and revise all work processes. We try to figure out how long our business can survive zero sales. After working our socks off to deliver ten years of year-on-year growth we feel like we’re staring into an abyss.
The first of many bad news emails arrives. Some of our key suppliers inform us that they’re closing, including a sewing team that has just cut over £5,000 of our fabric and now won’t be sewing it. The company that makes most of our mattress inserts also closes – on the day they were due to deliver mattresses to us. No mattresses means no dog beds to sell. My head literally can’t cope with the implications of having no stock to sell.
No surprise, Badminton Horse Trials is cancelled. Our sales in May will almost certainly be impacted. Claire, our part-time Show Manager, might not have any work. Stephen, who is responsible for our fulfilment, might not have any work. We’re a small business. These issues are personal. We are a work family. This is hideous.
Alex, our PR calls, having just returned from holiday. I give her the dreadful update. She’s not phased. “Fine. I’ll call all my press contacts, find out what their plans are and then work out how we’re going to keep Charley Chau visible.” Alex’s level-headed approach makes me feel as though a big hole in a leaky ship has just been plugged.
The conversation with Alex flicks a switch. Jenny and I sit down to take stock. We go through our finances with a fine toothcomb. We know exactly what we need to take in sales to stay open. We know exactly what we need to cover our costs if we are forced to close. We produce a cashflow forecast for every conceivable scenario.
We identify every single challenge that we are facing and make plans to deal with each one. The overwhelming anxiety is replaced by the determination that took our business from a quirky little hobby to an award-winning company with customers in over sixty countries around the world. We will stay open and we will have enough stock to sell because we will make it happen.
We need to make sure that our team are OK. Stephen’s fulfilment role can’t be done from home. With a drop in sales and a potential need to reduce costs, Jenny can cover the role temporarily. We have an open discussion with Stephen and he agrees to being furloughed in the interests of protecting his job for the long-term.
With no help on fulfilment we need to be more efficient, so we implement a new order and inventory management system in two days. The new system saves us around two hours every day.
As well working part-time for Charley Chau remotely, Claire is also a professional dog groomer but under lockdown her grooming business has closed. We look for opportunities to keep her working. We’ve been battling a surge in copyright and design right infringements with unethical copycat traders selling fake Charley Chau beds worldwide, so Claire takes it on. She flips from a revenue generation role to a revenue protection role, continuing to add value to our business, setting us up to be stronger as we work through this nightmare.
We’re glued to the tv, waiting for announcements of initiatives to support UK businesses. We’re eligible for the furlough scheme, VAT deferral and a loan but that’s it. No grants apply to us, so we’re going to have to tough this out ourselves. This makes us more determined.
I film a video to share on our social media channels, giving an update on all the changes and everything that’s going on. Even if we’re not selling, we want to keep talking to everyone who has supported Charley Chau over the years. We receive a flood of messages of support and realise that we still have so much to be thankful for.
Then another glimmer of hope at the end of what feels like the worst week in Charley Chau history – our sales pick up again over the weekend and this time it feels like a win.
Jenny and I sit down again and ask ourselves a hard question: how does Charley Chau stay relevant in these extraordinary times? How can we help our customers in this chaos? Our customers are also dealing with the impact of this devastating pandemic, so will they really want to think about luxury dog beds?
I can’t get food delivered for my own dogs. The major online pet stores have long delivery lead times. One major pet store has a queue just to get onto its website. Our customers are telling us the same thing.
We decide to execute a major pivot by stepping out of our luxury dog bedding niche to retail essential dog supplies: food, treats, toys, health supplements, grooming products. We hit the phones and speak to our network of contacts in the pet sector, all of whom are brilliant and give us trade accounts. Claire pitches in and advises on grooming essentials. She and Alex start work on content for social and our blog.
Our emergency dog supplies store goes live with over forty new product lines just five days after the idea was first floated. The team has really pulled it out of the bag.
It’s now May. The emergency dog supplies store has been a huge hit. We have resolved our supply chain issues and our mattresses are in production. Despite selling out of small and medium sized beds at the beginning of April, sales are returning to normality, increasing week on week. Our amazing customers are placing back-orders, happy to wait for their beds to be delivered. Once again, we are thankful.
Alex generated incredible press coverage that sent organic search for Charley Chau through the roof. Claire is winning the battle against the fakes which are now being taken down almost as soon as they are launched. We’re making plans to bring Stephen back into the office in the next few weeks.
The sales forecast for May is looking healthy. We expect to match last May despite Badminton being cancelled.
In March, that month of madness, our whole team had to dig deep to put us in a position to deal with the impact of this terrible pandemic. It has taught us some good lessons: go right back to basics, be relevant, make radical changes, find the opportunities amongst the chaos.
Christine Chau, co-founded the award-winning luxury dog bedding company, Charley Chau