Independent beer shops across the country have found ways to adapt their businesses in order to still operate during the lockdown period, while keeping staff and customers safe. 

In the second of our ‘Beer shops under lockdown’ series, DRN talks to Jules Gray, co-owner of Hop Hideout in Sheffield:

* Can you give me an idea of how your business is currently operating?

“Hop Hideout is operating home deliveries to Sheffield specific postcodes two days a week (Friday and Saturday) plus shipping out UK mainland home delivery packages Fridays.

“We have significantly reduced our hours and we are not allowing walk-in customers so it’s all online.

“When lockdown was first announced we were closed for roughly two weeks as we wanted to do the right thing and stay at home. “Over that time we can up with a way that our business could operate within boundaries to meet Covid retail procedures and make sure it was as safe as possible for our customers and us.

“So we have a compromise in terms of reduced days, and we also have to work with the foodhall we’re located in too.”

* What have been the key challenges that you have faced over this period?

“Challenges seems to be never-ending.

“We launched our mail order website and offering some years ago now and so luckily a number of our customers are fairly comfortable with using this and home delivery, so these areas weren’t so much of a pivot for us.

“However, the volume has significantly increased on this channel and there are more new customers who sometimes require help through the ordering process.

“What has been challenging is furloughing staff and taking on a bigger workload with fewer people in order for us to protect some outgoings and cashflow; just to survive in this uncertain time.

“Online and home deliveries is a more complex and in-depth interaction, creating more workload (for less revenue).

“But we are humbled and grateful to still have this lifeline.

“Getting stock from breweries and wholesalers is more difficult, many have gone on hold and furloughed staff. There is a smaller set of breweries to buy beer from, however we are still managing to have something new each week so far. Though as you can imagine, the beer release volume from breweries has noticeably and understandably dropped and some breweries are keeping the small pack volume for their own direct sales.

“We do see this as a potential challenge in the coming weeks.

“As a beer shop and tasting room we do hold and sell draught stock. It is a bit of a ticking timebomb in terms of dates and potential value write-off for us. We had bought in extra stock just before the lockdown for Sheffield Beer Week and Indie Beer Fest, so we are sitting on more than we would normally.

“We have been holding off contacting breweries about potential keg write-off and whether can work with them to reclaim any duty until we had had further announcements on lockdown length. But it does look like we will have to start contacting a number of breweries now. Ongoing key challenges are keeping us mentally healthy and positive in the tough trading conditions.”

* How have your sales been over the past few weeks?

“Sales are all through our online shop now. We have noticed that we have had some new customers from further afield.

“Overall though we have a reduced revenue compared with our usual weekly amounts. We are restricted somewhat on home deliveries as we’re only able to do so many a day.

“Understandably too some customers are being very careful with their spending, and we are aware that not everyone has a furloughed or working regular income now.

“However, we do see a certain amount of joy being gained when we deliver our beery packages out to customers and that’s a positive thing.”

* What are your concerns for the future of the bottle shop and craft beer industry?

“My concerns are for the whole eco-system, especially as no-one knows or has guidance yet on when hospitality venues can/should re-open. We can survive as a business but I’m not sure we can flourish and these tough working conditions have put a strain on us mentally.

“My concern is the extraordinary negative impact and I think there’ll be a significant number of beery businesses that go – whether it’s financial or through deciding to call it a day after huge mental and emotional rollercoaster; unless there is more government funding and support to access for the industry.

“One of the reasons we kept trading was to keep visible and keep in contact with our customers, so that we have a future. I think you need an ongoing open dialogue to survive as a business and my advice for those who can’t operate is to have a social media plan to keep in touch and keep people engaged, as it could be a longer haul than we first realised.

“Another concern is whether this will put off the next generation of workers (or new business owners and entrepreneurs) going into the industry, as it has been so hard hit and challenging.

“We also wonder whether online shopping will be the future (and whether we would therefore have no choice but to adopt that business model), and whether the impact on the high street will be so devastating that there just won’t be one. We do have hope there will be a high street left, but we do think it may be more imagined around experience and activity-led options.

“The retail sector really is being hit hard. On a more positive note, I think the connection between indie businesses and their customers is becoming deeper, genuine and honest.”

* Separately, do you think there are opportunities for off-trade beer specialists at the moment, and looking ahead?

“It’s difficult to think about opportunities, as it is more about survival mode. We are trying our best to support other independent businesses – sharing their details on our social media, as we want to make sure there’s a Sheffield ‘high street’ when we all return. So there is an opportunity there to support and connect.

“We have been sharing weekly online tasting, quizzes and gigs that people can access to promote other indies and to keep spirits and mental well-being up.

“In addition, we started #ABeerBookADay on social media to share beer books and writers because as a creative sector they are struggling at the moment.

“Meanwhile, as Sheffield’s chapter of the Mikkeller Running club we have a Facebook group of around 110 runners where we are chatting and keeping up spirits on solo runs, and using the hashtag #MRCGoesVirtual, where there is a global support network of runners.”

“We are also starting a weekly virtual learning programme with our part-time staff for beer judging. So that’s a positive!”