A few steps from Berlin’s most famous shopping street, Kurfürstendamm, is a small shoe shop run by Udo Robakowski. The shop, Schuh Konzept, is a fashionable boutique with a full length shelf of formal shoes for men and women. Prices range from € 200 to € 1,500 ($ 240 to $ 1,800).
The only problem is there are no customers – and it has been since December 16 when Germany forced all non-essential shops to close to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Since then, the lockdown has been in place extended twice and is currently in its place until at least March 7. Judging by the previous extension, it might not be the last one, which makes general hygiene and planning rules almost a waste of time and energy.
During these weeks and months of uncertainty, all retailers other than wholesalers, pharmacies and drugstores have closed and customers simply abandoned. There are very few exceptions; not even a hair salon or do-it-yourself hardware store is open yet.
When experience doesn’t help
Robakowski, who is a professional shoemaker, has been in the business for 22 years. During that time he had three shops, all on the same street. Each one is bigger than the last. Nine years ago, he moved to his current location. Even with all her experiences, she didn’t know what else to do and called the situation a “catastrophe.”
With so many people working at home and no big events, people don’t buy shoes the way they used to. In addition, he missed many important Christmas shopping seasons.
The stock of unsold shoes was piling up. Now a shipment of new shoes, long ordered, has arrived. Plus in the next few weeks, orders are due for fall / winter. With business down by about 50% last year, it will be a small order.
Can small shops compete?
Robakowski is not alone. Overall, The German economy shrank 5% last year. On February 16, Economy Minister Peter Altmaier made another promise quick help for business. Earlier this year he predicted growth would only reach 3% in 2021. That’s down 1.4% from the previous estimate.
For retailers, much of what is being sold is sold online. Last year Germans spent more than € 83 billion online, a 14% increase in 2019, according to figures compiled by the German E-Commerce and Remote Trading Association (bevh). The biggest online purchases are clothes and electronics.
In general, consumer confidence has fallen and the German Retail Federation (HDE) continues to warn that 50,000 stores with 250,000 employees are now facing bankruptcy due to lockdown measures. Unsurprisingly, those who sell clothing, leather goods and shoes are especially vulnerable.
Little silver lining
Unlike most other retailers in the area, Robakowski is able to keep his doors open because he offers an in-store shoe repair service. There are still days when only two or three customers come to pick up or drop off the shoes for a total of € 60 for repair.And even if the customer sees a nice pair of shoes while there, he can’t sell them anything.
Selling online didn’t make sense to him either, because he had to fight big companies. The work it takes to sell a few shoes on the side isn’t worth marketing, shipping, and returns. He does offer an interactive online shoe repair calculator, the first of its kind, he says. Though these shoes need to be brought to the store to work on.
Robakowski has signed up for government assistance programs in December and January. So far he hasn’t received anything. “I need direct financial assistance and the government doesn’t seem to be taking it seriously enough,” he told DW.
He understands that we are in for an extraordinary time, but policymakers have a year to prepare. “Everything took too long and didn’t help get December aid in April,” he complained.
Facing an uncertain future
Until now, Robakowski has been able to retain 11 of his employees, even though they are still working short term work program who pay a portion of their salary.
Others on the street used forced closures to renovate. Some are closed for good. The shoemaker is expecting a lot of empty storefronts in the future. The city may never be the same.
Luckily the landlord helped. During the first lockdown last spring, she was allowed to skip two months of rent and pay only utilities. Now he has an agreement to pay whatever he can; once everything returns to normal, he will sit down with his owner and see what can be arranged. But most were not that lucky.
Although he was personally fortunate in a bad situation, Robakowski thought that more solidarity from banks and landlords was needed to get through these difficult times. This is a job that only the government can arrange.
Robakowski is sure he will not go out of business. His entrepreneurial spirit was fading but still burning. Apart from direct financial support, what he needs most is planning security. But no matter what, he would find something, even if it meant moving to a smaller location and releasing some of the staff. Asked if he thought his shop would actually be allowed to open on March 7, he replied: “I would believe it if that happened.”