Fighting back: what small businesses can learn from the 2011 riots

Ten years on from riots which led to five deaths and the destruction of businesses and properties across England, the recorded experiences of small business owners affected could help signal what might be to come for SMEs trying to rebuild after the pandemic, according to an academic and business expert. 

It has been estimated that over 2,000 mostly small independent businesses were impacted by four days of rioting – looting, vandalism and arson – across London in August 2011, affecting 22 of the 32 boroughs. The riots later spread to other English cities as well, costing £200-500 million in terms of damage, lost trade and policing. 

In autumn 2011, Dr Rachel Doern, an expert in small business recovery and growth after crisis and now Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurship at Goldsmiths, interviewed small business owners in London about the impact of the riots.  

She explains: “Much media and research attention around the riots has focused on understanding the causes, why members of the public got involved and the police response, rather than the effects for businesses and communities, the experiences of the victims, particularly small businesses.” 

The business owners she spoke to reported experiencing business and personal losses.  

“Business losses ranged from £10,000 at the lower end, to £50,000-£100,000 on average, and over a million at the upper end. Direct damages were severe and included structural damages to buildings, shutters, windows, doors, fittings and fixtures, and loss of contents.

Most were still rebuilding and the effects of the riots continued to take a toll on their mental health

“Most were forced to close for a few weeks, re-opening with limited stock and ongoing repairs; several that had problems re-stocking were closed for months. In some cases, premises had burned down completely and rebuilding or re-location was necessary.

She interviewed business owners again in 2013 to understand how they were recovering and published numerous research papers on the findings,.  

She says: “Many businesses were nowhere near being back to normal. Support was variable and dependent partly on the borough. Many were still waiting for compensation. Most were still rebuilding and the effects of the riots continued to take a toll on their mental health.” 

This was evident in the words of one business owner who told her: “I’ve lost two years of my life”. This, she says, suggests that the full effects of the pandemic have yet to be felt for many businesses. 

Dr Doern’s current research uses diaries and interviews to study how business owners across different sectors are coping with the impacts of the Covid-19 crisis. Her work continues to explore both the financial impact on businesses, but also the (often connected) mental health and psychological impact of a crisis on entrepreneurs. 

There is plenty more to be said about the parallels and similarities in the experiences of small businesses across these two crises, including: 

  • Little advance warning of the crisis event and high levels of uncertainty that followed
  • Creativity and ingenuity in business responses, scaling down, or trying new products, services or forms of delivery, and, for some, looking to new opportunities presented
  • Additional engagement with staff, customers and other stakeholders
  • Enhanced marketing and promotions, business collaborations
  • Significant increases in the demands on time and workloads
  • Appeals to MPs and government for support (this manifested in more organised lobbying by certain industry groups during the pandemic, due to its scale).
  • Profound impacts on mental health and wellbeing 

More on Dr Doern here

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