St Albans retailer reveals challenges of post-lockdown trading

Emma Bustamante of Cositas speaks out about the challenges of recovering from a pandemic as a single

Emma Bustamante of Cositas speaks out about the challenges of recovering from a pandemic as a single mum and business owner. Picture: Laura Bill - Credit: Archant

Expanding your business weeks after the coronavirus shutdown would be a risky venture for anyone, but for Emma Bustamante it was a case of do or die.

Emma Bustamante in Cositas Gifts, her new venture to try and attract more shoppers who don't leave t

Emma Bustamante in Cositas Gifts, her new venture to try and attract more shoppers who don't leave the centre of St Albans, Picture: Laura Bill - Credit: Archant

Mother-of-three Emma, who founded home furnishings and gifts shop Cositas on Holywell Hill in 2017, is keen to secure her business’ long-term future by attracting new customers.

The store was shut for three months during the pandemic, and although she used the opportunity to expand Cositas’ online presence, she needs to recoup lost revenue.

So she has launched a second shop in The Village Arcade to capture much-needed festive trade and signpost city centre customers to the original premises.

Emma said: “It feels like a scary move at an uncertain time but I’m so aware of the need to serve our customers as best we can.

“Having a presence right in town has hopefully enabled us to do this.”

The 45-year-old has always had a very hands-on approach to her business: “Being on the shop floor is the best market research ever because we get it straight from the horses mouth. With the changing retail climate before Covid, we realised the need to up our online game which we did a couple of years ago and we thanked our lucky stars for that with lockdown.”

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She began running Cositas Creative workshops six months after she opened and Emma says she didn’t expect it to be as popular as it has been.

“I was keen to add another element to the business that engages the community and this seemed perfect.”

She can now call on the talents of 15 expert workshop leaders teaching over 25 workshops.

Last year Cositas was voted one of the UK’s top 15 most innovative retailers by BIRA (British Independent Retailers Association) as a result of the workshops and a virtual shopping experience shot by local award-winning Google photographer Striking Places.

Emma added: “Over the years I’ve learned that a successful high street is so dependant upon the community it serves and here in St Albans we’re really lucky to be surrounded by a forward thinking and supportive bunch.”

Community initiatives like ‘Snowflakes at Christmas’, where customers can adorn the shop ceiling with snowflakes with the names of people they’re thinking of at Christmas for a small charity donation are an example of how she keeps the experience personal and relevant.

Emma added: “During lockdown we filled our windows with rainbow hearts to show our gratitude for members of our community who have been amazing during the pandemic.”

As a single mum, the impact on her family life has been quite considerable, with Emma frequently working a 15-hour day.

“It’s just me at home with my three children which means my income is my sole income. That can be tricky but the children are so understanding.

When I opened Cositas Gifts this week I said to them ‘I’m sorry guys, I promise we’ll go on holiday next year’ and they just laughed and said ‘You’ve been saying that for three years mum!’

“The fact that they weren’t bothered was lovely of them but it also made me really sad that it’s what they’ve come to expect. I’m actually really relieved that Covid took the pressure off this year!

“The older children have had to really step up in the home because being at work so much leaves very little time for hoovering and changing beds. I think they understand that I don’t want to build something good that keeps me working like this, but something great that will eventually allow me the freedom to have the adventures I dream of having with them. Our first stop will be a family-moon Greek island hopping.

I spoke to a friend who has a similar business in a town nearby and told her how guilty I feel that I keep ploughing into this and as a result am taking away from the children and she said

‘If you taught them never to go for things, never to work hard, never to strive to be the best version of yourself though graft and sheer determination then you’d be messing up their lives. You are entrepreneurial and they must be incredibly proud of your grit and tenacity and as a result will learn from you’.

“That made me feel so much better, and in lockdown I helped my 19-year-old set up her own little business which makes me so proud. So maybe I have given them more than I realise with this business.”