Small businesses have been hit hard by a coronavirus pandemic that has exacerbated unfair competition by big corporations. While in Monaco it is business (almost) as usual, just over the border, French independent shops are trying to pull through a second national lockdown.

Many small businesses thought it was once and done, but perhaps that was wishful thinking. Another sudden closure and ensuing plummeting revenues would have been too hard a blow for many small businesses to withstand – the coup de grâce.

But, as September saw Covid-19 numbers soar and October saw them explode, the French government announced Lockdown, Episode 2. Even if in France, rules have been more flexible than they were in March, the government’s definition of an “essential business” has made more than one person gnash their teeth. While IT and home appliances stores have been allowed to stay open, many businesses have had to shut for the second time this year.

Click & Collect: a disappointing consolation prize

Some small businesses have continued to sell their stock through Click & Collect services, which is authorised by current French lockdown regulations. Others, like Christine Vignon, owner of Shopping Flor, a flower shop in Nice, tried to play it safe. “As soon as I sensed that a new lockdown was around the corner, I put my stock on sale. I couldn’t risk losing all my flowers as I did during the previous lockdown,” she says. In November, Ms. Vignon’s revenue dropped by 90%, and the wave of wedding cancellations has not helped. “Everyone canceled which means no wedding bouquets, no centrepieces, no flower decorations.”

So long as shops are closed, clients will turn to online retailers

Big corporations and unfair competition

More than one head shook when the French Government outlined its definition of an “essential business”. For many, the hardest news to digest was the closure of bookshops, while big groups, such as the Fnac, were allowed to keep their book departments open. After widespread criticism, including by the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, on 30 October 30 the government amended its rule. Yet, instead of opening bookstores, it closed big retailers’ book departments.

Travel Club Monaco

“It’s not really a solution because the unfair competition is still there: so long as bookshops are closed, clients will turn to online retailers,” says Pierre Benassaya, manager of the Nouvelle Librairie Française in Nice. However, the Darty-Fnac group disagrees, stating that “e-sales represent 21% of turnover in the third trimester, compared to 18% a year earlier” on 21 October, only a negligible increase. 

There have been initiatives to ease independent businesses into the world of online selling, as Clément Yern, director of Darty Nice Notre-Dame explains: “We offer the first 6 months free of charge to any new business owner or independent bookseller who signs up on our marketplace during lockdown.”

Relationship with clients is an asset

In Monaco, things are a little different. Instead of a lockdown, the government introduced a curfew, welcomed news for small businesses, which continue to suffer from the absence of tourists.

Marina Crovetto, owner of the boutique Men Store on the boulevard Princesse Caroline, firmly believes in the future of small businesses. “We have a relationship with our clients, and big corporations never will,” she says. She also names transparency as another advantage. “We don’t force people to buy. If you don’t like it, we’ll find something else that suits you better,” she says. Inevitably, a more technological future is in the books. “I’ll have to start selling some items online, sooner rather than later,” says Marina Crovetto.

At the moment, all one can do is wait and see what December has in store. Emmanuel Macron is set to speak on Tuesday 24 November to outline new measures that could easily make or break the future of small businesses.