Covid in Hamburg: How Small Companies Are Coping

Shops in Hamburg have been marginalized by lockdowns and curfews in the pandemic and uncertainty as to when a return to something normal could occur.

Jack Ewing and

May 7, 2021

Germany is known for luxury cars, machine tools, and other goods that have protected the overall economy from the worst effects of the pandemic. But Germany is also a nation of shopkeepers, small businesses whose employees often come from the same family.

These companies have been marginalized by bans, quarantines, and other restrictions that often change from day to day. Vaccines are in short supply and intensive care units are filling up, prompting Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government to put a nationwide curfew in areas with high infection rates last month.

In the Hamburg port city, retailers improvise in order to survive.

Théodora Vezo, the owner of a boutique that bears her name, took customers by appointment and changed her shop windows with clothes and accessories much more frequently.

Yayi Chen, owner of a business that sells manga comics and graphic novels, set up a TikTok channel and ordered its employees to develop content to promote online sales.

Birgit Wyrowski, who has been building violins in her business for 34 years, was able to partially offset a decline in sales by selling ukuleles, which are popular with neophyte musicians in lockdown because they are easy to play.

But these improvisations often have a disadvantage. Ms. Wyrowski said she feared young people who had grasped a tool to fight boredom would lose interest without personal instruction. “And play together. Of course that is also missing, ”she said.

For many companies, there was no real option but to try until the lockdowns wear off, which in Germany may not be until the fall.

The tailor Edip Kücükoglu is still allowed to make changes, but the customers stay away. Why spend money looking better when you never leave home?

“Customers don’t come in to have things changed or made. They wait until the times are better, ”said Kücükoglu. “It’s good that I own this shop. If I wasn’t an owner I would have closed a long time ago. “

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May 6, 2021, 11:23 a.m. ET

The federal and state governments have helped many companies. But the guidelines were inconsistent at times. Giulia Christen, fashion designer and owner of Pyrate-Style, a shop that sells bespoke clothing, said the government’s response was initially excellent. “You made a request and two weeks later the money was in your account,” she said.

But Ms. Christen was refused aid for November and December because a closure did not take effect until December 16. “That meant we lost all of our Christmas sales,” she said, “but we didn’t get any support. ”

Some companies have benefited from the pandemic. Dennis Jakobs Metzgerei, founded by his grandfather in 1951 and where he worked all his life, was busy serving customers who cooked more for themselves and shopped closer to home. “There are a lot of new faces! Our customer base has grown, ”said Jakob.

Germans have a reputation for being organized, but the stereotype did not affect the vaccination campaign. Less than a quarter of the population had received a first dose of vaccine by the end of April, compared with more than 40 percent in the US and more than 60 percent in the UK.

Christian Möller, owner of the travel agency Derpart Flug und Ferienreisen, said that sales so far this year have fallen by more than 90 percent. Only when people are vaccinated can they be confident of going on vacation abroad.

“I hope that the vaccinations will be carried out as soon as possible,” added Möller. “That’s the key to it all.”

Businesses dependent on weddings, funerals, or other gatherings are in a similar situation. “None of this takes place at all,” said Susanne Juergens, florist at Blumenstube Diana Hittig. “Celebrations, affirmations – we missed all of the deal in 2020.”

Hairdressing salons were mostly closed last year, but were allowed to reopen in early March, earlier than most other stores where there is face-to-face contact.

The rush of customers between locks helped to compensate for the periods of time Petra Hartje was forced to close her shop. There was even a positive aspect: people really appreciated their hairdressers. “We were suddenly relevant for the system,” said Ms. Hartje.

But keeping the deal open wasn’t easy. “A customer was here on a Saturday in December. On the following Tuesday she sent me an email that she had Corona, “said Ms. Hartje. “I had to quarantine for 10 days.”

While internet retailers have been booming, online sales are not a real option for stores that rely on face-to-face contact, like Marie Josephine Bouquet’s hat shop.

“There is nothing I can do if I can’t take faucets, take measurements, or touch the customer,” said Ms. Bouquet. “Hats are too individual and too special.”

Clothing companies are among the biggest economic victims of the pandemic. Nationwide, sales of clothing and shoes fell by more than three quarters in January compared to the previous year, according to official figures. Almost half of the retailers surveyed by the federal association feared bankruptcy.

More than two-thirds of Ms. Bouquet’s hat sales came from idle theater productions. “That was the last straw,” said Ms. Bouquet. Their sales fell by around half in the past year. While she will continue to make hats for theater customers in her studio, she finally closed the shop front in February.

Paula Haase contributed to the reporting.

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