A proposal to support independent businesses that cannot survive social distancing

This last week has been many things, few of them good. One of the things has been the realisation that many of the businesses that I want to see surviving this crisis (and for once we can call it a crisis) depend on people coming into them and spending time with other people. These places do not merely provide us with tea and beer and pizza. They provide us with space for the exchange of stories, jokes, ideas. Sadly they also enable the exchange of micro-organisms, and so for the time being they have to close.

Financial support from the government is promised, but we do not know exactly what form it will take and how thinly it will be spread. It looks like it will mostly be loans which, regardless of the terms, will have to be paid back.

On a similar note, it’s been suggested that customers of these businesses purchase up front, via a voucher or credit scheme, and exchange this credit for goods and services at a later date. But this, again, creates a debt to be repaid. Profits in the future will be curtailed. Recovery will be impeded.

What is needed in the short term is cash to cover wages, rent and utilities. If a business is to re-open after a number of months it needs to be kept on life-support. It will vary for each business but let’s say a small shop-unit on the high street needs £10,000 a month to cover the absolute bare minimum. As the months go on that becomes £20k, £30k, £40k… And then when it’s all over you need to restock.

Now, let’s say you’re lucky enough that your income isn’t immediately affected by the crisis. Let’s say you would normally spend £20 at one of these places of an evening. Right now you’re not able to, because they can’t let you in.

My proposal is that you spend £20 anyway and don’t expect anything in return.

If 100 people do this in a month then that business has shaved 20% off their bill. They’ll still need a bridging loan but it won’t for as much and will be paid back faster.

Most of the £20 you spend doesn’t go on the thing you consume - it goes on the cost of the building and the wages of the staff. That’s why a cup of hot water with some dried tea leaves costs £2.50, or a beer you can get in the supermarket for a 80p costs four times that. Hell, look at restaurant prices. £10 for a bowl of pasta and cheese?

When we go out we’re paying for the venues. But we’re not going out. We’re at home with food and drinks we’ve bought cheap from supermarkets who sell most things to us at a fraction above cost price.

Those who aren’t on the breadline and whose income isn’t about to be slashed to the bone, are about to have a surprising amount of money to spare.

Don’t see it as a gift or a donation. Don’t see it as charity. See it as an investment in your community, an investment in ensuring that when this is all over the people standing aren’t just those backed by capitalists exploiting a disaster.

And to the business, now is not the time to be proud. Put a button on your website that allows people to just give you money. Sell a non-product, a voucher that expires in a month. If you can figure out how to do it, stick your contactless card reader in your window so we can pay from the outside. (Here’s instructions for iZettle.)

People will want to give you money. You need to take it. Because you are essential.

[Note: I work at Loaf, on Stirchley High Street. At the moment we’re OK as we produce a staple good (bread) and can safely distribute it. But if we’re unable to make an income from our normal practice, I won’t hesitate to recommend we do this ourselves. For now I recommend you target the pubs, cafes, bars and other venues that depend on people being inside them and who are suddenly, without warning, under threat.]