An iconic part of local high streets, hundreds of the independent wedding shops – predominantly belonging to women – have found themselves caught out for being classified as non-essential retail, something they vehemently reject. That makes them only eligible for one of the smaller restart grants, based on rateable value, as restrictions lift. This can make a difference of thousands of pounds compared to the ones available for those classified as being in the personal care and well-being category, one that includes tattoo parlours and nail bars.
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“There’s no understanding of what we do,” Judith Wade and Laurie Barnett, the owners of Epernay Bridal in Gosforth, Newcastle, protested to Crusader.
“We don’t function like other high street stores. Everything is personal care, the experience and our service are part of why our customers love us. Wedding dresses are personally fitted, customers try on several and the one they buy always needs altering so it’s a perfect fit. We sell a package with hair and make-up services too.”
The women have put their all into their business since opening two years ago and their glamorous dresses have been a huge hit.
These are inevitably the highest value part of what Epernay offers and that’s what led to the business being placed in the non-essential category according to the rules.
While Judith and Laurie can receive £2,667, they stand to miss out on several thousands of pounds more of vital support.
The classification may also have a knock-on effect on hair and makeup services suppliers in the wedding shop system who don’t have their own rateable value premises.
Local authorities administer the £5 billion scheme based on government advice and Newcastle City Council has rejected Epernay’s appeal.
But Judith and Laurie are part of a growing band of unhappy owners who say not only is the grouping unfair, but the grants have become a postcode lottery too and change is needed.
Another wedding shop owner, whose sales have fallen 80 per cent over the past year, told Crusader of her “kick in the teeth” when, after she got a letter awarding her a higher £8,000 grant, she got another saying it had been “paid in error”.
“I now have a £5,333 repayment demand. I went from elation to dejection. Our margins are so small anyway and we are doing everything to keep going,” she said. “Confusion like this really wears you down.”
A spokesman for Beis, the department for business, said: “We understand how difficult the pandemic has been, especially for those in the wedding industry.
“Non-essential retail business units, such as bridal shops, have been able to claim grant support throughout the pandemic, including grants of up to £4,500 per six-weeks of closure during the period of national lockdown from January 5th, and one-off Restart Grants of up to £6,000 to support them as Covid-19 restrictions are lifted.
“We have issued clear guidance to local authorities on business categorisation and grant eligibility, and continue to monitor them.”
Trade body the British Independent Retailers Association (Bira) is calling for a rethink: “When considering support for retail outlets it is important to understand the needs of certain specialist areas. Bridal boutiques are not just dress shops – the services they offer are so much more,” says Bira chief executive Andrew Goodacre.
“It will take a long time for their market to fully return. The re-start grants are there to help businesses to re-start, and those most affected should receive the most. I believe that bridal boutiques are among those businesses most affected.”