How my favourite small business is surviving the pandemic

A local auction house in the English Channel is using the pandemic to reach customers as far away as Abu Dhabi

Auction house sale. Getty Images
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A few months ago, as the initial Covid-19 lockdown rules began to ease slightly, I expressed hope in these pages that people would have made good use of their time to prepare for the changed world in which we now find ourselves. Part of that preparation, of course, relates to individuals – in schools, offices, aeroplanes, hotels and wherever else people regularly interact with one another. The old ways may no longer be acceptable or appropriate.

It is also of crucial importance for businesses. Many have struggled, many have gone under and many others, both here and elsewhere, are leaner than before. Despite optimistic corporate messaging, the hard reality is not quite so upbeat, even where companies – thus far – have survived.

As some of the behemoths of commerce waver and wobble, we should be looking to individuals and smaller enterprises whose willingness to learn and to adapt has enabled them not only to survive but to grow.

This summer is the first for over 35 years that I haven’t been able to spend a few weeks in my other home of Jersey. I’ve missed that terribly, for a host of reasons besides the more acceptable climate. One has been the inability to attend the weekly auctions that take place at a spot in the middle of the Jersey countryside. Over the years, I’ve found some remarkable bargains there, ranging from a stuffed short-eared owl to furniture to a couple of rare antique maps that show both Jersey and the Arabian Gulf. Those maps are now in the collection of the UAE’s top map collector.

JERSEY, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 01: A couple walk on the causeway leading to the Corbiere lighthouse on March 1, 2008 in Jersey, Channel Islands.  Britain's most southerly island - Jersey is located 100 miles  south of mainland Britain and 14 miles from the coast of France. Jersey measures nine miles by five and is one of The Channel Islands which are British Crown Dependencies but are not part of the United Kingdom. Tourism, banking and finance are the mainstays of the economy.  (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
A couple walk on the causeway leading to the Corbiere lighthouse in Jersey, Channel Islands. Getty Images

It’s always nice to see familiar faces and to wander around to consider if I want to bid on anything. I’ve been receiving a weekly email for years that lists the various lots, but there’s not much satisfaction in that. The auctions stopped in March, as Jersey introduced Covid-19 restrictions. They began again in mid-June, and it was clear that the auctioneers had made good use of their enforced leisure time. The website had been upgraded – excellent. More information was available. That was a good idea.

Going beyond that, they worked with Digital Jersey, a government agency promoting the development of the digital sector, to get the auction itself online. Pictures of every item are posted and it's now possible not only to follow every lot, bid by bid, but to register to bid yourself online.

The first sale in the new format was a stunning success. Over 200 people registered to bid virtually, and from a wider variety of age groups than normally attend the physical sales. At the end of the day, around 70 per cent of all successful bids were made online – far more than had been expected.

The company’s owner, Simon Drieu, was rendered speechless by how popular it had become. He subsequently introduced an audio feature, so that people following from their computers can enjoy his rapid auctioneer’s patter, sharing remotely in the excitement.

By taking the time during lockdown to think of ways to adjust his business model, Mr Drieu identified a new opportunity to use digital technology. That has enabled him to reach out to most of his regular clientele on Jersey, regardless of the weather. It has also opened up access to a huge new potential audience, not just at home but overseas – even as far away as Abu Dhabi.

Not every business can follow a similar course. Many will lose their livelihoods in the pandemic, as my fellow columnist Mustafa Alrawi points out in his column. Some small businesses, though, can use remote working to their advantage to recover from the Covid-19 lockdown and embark on an era of growth – provided they can find ways to exploit digital technology to expand their own market. As more is available to purchase online, so the numbers of consumers choosing to do so will increase.

We are, I suspect, at the beginning of a massive expansion in the use of digital technology. With the UAE already a leader in the field, the scope for a change in the way we do business is enormous.

In the meantime, I must remember to register to bid online in next week’s auction!

Peter Hellyer is a UAE cultural historian and columnist for The National