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8th June 2021

Award-winning optician took a cold hard look at everything during the Pandemic

Like many independent retail business owners in Liverpool in the Spring of 2020, Mark Blankstone faced some very unknown challenges ahead.

Granted he was deemed as operating in ‘essential services’ by government – a good proportion of Blankstone Opticians’ workload is based around helping people with either emergency eye care or ongoing health care prevention using advanced technology.

However, Mark who is also on the board of Liverpool City Central BID, felt like his colleagues that the Pandemic wasn’t going to be a short lived window in history.

“We knew we were looking at the very least, 18 months of uncertainty like our generation has never known before. And that was in spite of the huge leaps forward in science. A lookback in history to the last major Pandemic which was over a hundred years ago that took 2-3 years before normality returned told us this.

“What that meant to me personally and from a business perspective took a lot of thinking and planning ahead. I’ve never had to shut a business down for more than a week in almost 30 years of our existence so to be faced with at least 3 months of temporary closure was a daunting and scary prospect.

“With income down 75%,  how was I going to pay the bills and what would it take to keep the business from going under? These were the kinds of questions ruminating in my mind.

“Sharing our predicament was huge…our accountant Paul Durrance of Mitchell Charlesworth was a tremendous help and we worked out that if we tightened our financial belt we could keep going for 6 months. I also looked at cash flow from July 2020 for the next year working on a plan of getting back up to 50% of normal levels.

“At the same time I spoke to suppliers and our landlord, all of whom were very understanding and gave me the breathing space to get the business into a hibernated state. This took around a month. By that time Government brought in grant funding and loan schemes as well as the furlough scheme. Suddenly, financially we were in a good place and the next considerations were how we could re-open safely, when could we do it and most importantly how we would communicate to our customers what we were planning, seeking to reassure them in the process.

“With the help of our marketing team, we hatched a plan that included advising all customers in writing at regular intervals, how we could be of help to them for all of their eye care needs.

“Using all the offline and digital technology tools at our disposal, we informed customers of our telephone triage service. Our store telephone service was diverted to my mobile and I set up an office at home. We were able to offer and distribute contact lenses directly from our suppliers and when there were customers with an eyecare emergency, we would meet them in store, employing PPE and all other Covid safeguarding measures as you’d expect.

“I should hasten to add that we were grateful too for the advice from The Royal College of Optometrists and the Association of British Dispensing Opticians on protocols required to set up a safe practice in store and again, snail mailing and digitally informing our customers immediately afterwards.

“We were finally allowed to re-open at the end of June and we have continued to operate throughout.”

Reflecting on the past 15 months, Mark added: “I’ve learnt that there’s no problem that cannot be resolved, even when faced with something unprecedented such as a Pandemic. It’s been energy-sapping, stressful and has reminded me that time is precious and time with loved ones is the most important thing in life. I know I’ve not been alone in thinking that!

Mark concluded: “It really has taken a huge effort and I am forever grateful for the professional advice I have received. I have been humbled too by so many of our clients…their first journey to Liverpool after restrictions were eased was to come and see us, a big compliment and recognition of our team’s work. My staff have been resolute and loyal and a great source of camaraderie, we’ve all stuck by each other, a great team that I couldn’t do without.

“Looking back, I think we’ve done the best we could too, under extreme circumstances…and let’s face it, nobody was prepared with a rule book to deal with a situation like this.

“Whilst of course, we’re not back to normality yet, let us hope we never have to suffer this tragic event again even though we’re far better placed to deal with almost anything after the very testing experience of the last 15 months.”