Asian convenience stores and supermarkets showed great resilience in continuing to serve their customers throughout the pandemic despite their staff having a higher chance of contracting the disease.
Anwar Karim, a director of Karim Supermarkets in Lozells, Birmingham, said many people in his community had died in recent weeks, including a family staff member of a nearby store, various customers and close family friends.
But he said the sector had determinedly remained open and had adapted to the crisis to help keep local customers connected and supplied with goods.
Mr Karim revealed his experiences in episode 3 of a podcast series called ‘Aston means business: SMEs adapting to COVID-19 challenges’, presented by journalist Steve Dyson.
Professor Monder Ram, the Director of the Centre for Research in Ethnic Minority Entrepreneurship at Aston Business School, was also interviewed for the podcast, and said resilient Asian retail businesses were among the “heroes” of the pandemic.
Mr Karim, whose supermarket has been trading since 1984, said: “Our main focal point has been we live in the community, we work for the community and if so we’ll die for the community.”
“When we started off with this PPE clothing, it was like: ‘Where do we actually get this from?’ We started using what we’re selling in our shops, which were washing up gloves. They weren’t good enough but that’s what we had. We located some and [thought] if we’re going to buy disposable gloves and masks for ourselves why not just buy more and give them out to every single customer. We did that for weeks and didn’t charge them a penny.”
“We’re at massive risk. Sometimes I sit here and I look left and right at colleagues that were here a few months ago and they’re not here with us now. And I’m talking about the generation my father’s age. A lot of friends, colleagues and customers his age have passed away.”
“A convenience store around the corner, they’ve got an elderly woman, but she caught COVID-19 and passed away. A friend of mine lost both of his parents – his mother died on the Tuesday and his father on the Wednesday. He said to me: ‘I wasn’t sure which to bury first and what to do.’ Nobody knew what was going on, the virus seemed to be killing everybody everywhere. It was so scary at that time, but we managed to get through.”
Mr Karim explained that he was well networked with the local council and universities to get information about assistance. But he said many in his community were reluctant to ask for help.
He said: “So many people are not getting any information. For example, you have the £10,000 grants for small businesses, but we have a reluctance to touch it. ‘Hand-outs’ is a derogatory term to the Asian community – they will suffer but you will never see them suffer. There’s too much pride at stake.”
Mr Karim, who with other traders collected more than £15,000 of groceries for vulnerable families in the area, said: “What we’ve done physically in our shops is social distancing, keeping a two-metre gap, respecting each other. We’ve got gloves and masks, we’ve put new system into place.”
“The biggest change is going into a cashless society. In warehouses and markets we have to start buying everything on card rather than cash. We’ve changed so many policies. On the positive side, people have appreciated the small convenience store, the corner shop, supermarkets locally [are a] solid, important market sector [they] forgot about.”
“We’ve won a lot of customers back, our trade’s been brilliant because we’ve tried to keep up with as much stock as we can. Going forward we a lot of phone orders coming through. We’re just taking it in now and thinking we can do things differently. The old way has to evolve now.”
Prof Ram lamented that there was “hardly any recognition” of the sector, despite BAME communities being “disproportionately likely” to get COVID-19.
He said: “We know businesses like Anwar’s make an economic contribution – they employ people from the community as well as the family. But what we don’t fully appreciate is the way Anwar says so movingly is the vital social role they play around their community … pivotal to making connections between disadvantaged, vulnerable communities and the mainstream.”
“BAME communities are disproportionately in businesses exposed to COVID. The catering and retail sectors where south Asians have particularly concentrated are effectively on the front line. [But] instead of retreating or retrenching they’ve done the opposite – put themselves in harm’s way to support the local community, and that is heroic.”
“They’re entitled to support and it’s worrying that there’s a reticence to avail themselves of it. What we did recently was convene a meeting of retailers and a local authority official. It was the first time those people were in front of authority making decisions about grants. We helped to disabuse retailers of the notion that they’re not entitled to it, and seven business owners received grants.”
“That’s a drop in the ocean. What local authorities need to do is get out there and appreciate these almost hidden barriers for communities that need to be overcome.”
Commenting on the future, Prof Ram added: “It is possible to modernise, to deploy IT, to become even closer to your market, and we shouldn’t lose sight of the innate strength of businesses like these. These businesses are connected to the community and they can leverage that.”
▪ Episode 3 of ‘Aston means business: SMEs adapting to COVID-19 challenges’ can be found at https://www2.aston.ac.uk/aston-business-school/podcast.
About Aston University
Founded in 1895 and a University since 1966, Aston is a long-established university led by its three main beneficiaries – students, business and the professions, and our region and society. Aston University is located in Birmingham and at the heart of a vibrant city and the campus houses all the university’s academic, social and accommodation facilities for our students. Professor Alec Cameron is the Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive.
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