Working safely through COVID-19: The Bath House | Cumbria LEP
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Working safely through COVID-19: The Bath House

The Bath House The Bath House

Since we launched The Bath House in 1997, we have experienced many ups and downs in those 23 years and our company is used to adapting and working to market demands, but no one could have predicted the current situation and the global challenges and threats it is bringing. Nevertheless, we have drawn on our adaptability and experience to try to find our way through this.

Our business is multi-faceted and complex, and its development over the past 23 years is driven by our creative and entrepreneurial spirit, the necessity to react and adapt to changing markets and our overriding sense of responsibility to our wonderful staff.  Many have asked how we ended up doing what we do; the answer lies somewhere between naivety, risk-taking, passion and ambition.  So what DO we do at the Bath House?

Our company is headed by five directors from two families, all with a creative background (degrees in sculpture, fine art, Masters in printed textiles and surface pattern), no business or management qualifications, but plenty of experience. We have worked together on various businesses before Bath House too.

The Bath House is a specialist, niche, British maker of perfumes and natural body care with seven of our own shops in Cumbria and the North of England (Ambleside, Bowness, Kirkby Lonsdale, Sedbergh, Ilkley, Knutsford and York). Initially working closely with other companies in the UK to make our products, then nine years ago we began manufacturing our own body care collections in our purpose-build facilities in Sedbergh. This huge change to our business model took time to perfect, and since then, we have bought large premises in Dent to further develop our making and production areas, including specialist fragrance-making facilities. Where we have been let down by suppliers in the past, where possible we bring that process inhouse.  Sometimes that proves to be very challenging, but it has brought most of our needs ‘under one roof’ and with it, a high degree of self sufficiency and flexibility to our business. From the initial fragrance brief, product development and packaging concepts, the manufacturing, filling and labelling then onto the completed ready to sell product, marketing, photography, graphics, social media and shop windows, selling online and instore, we do it all.  We dictate the batch sizes, anything from 100 to 1500, so we don’t hold huge stocks of slower selling lines.  Everything is made to the highest standards, using the best natural ingredients.

In February, as we were all beginning to face the reality of Coronavirus just around the corner, we made a pivotal change in our manufacturing facility. With the Coronavirus situation affecting everyone and with the supplies of hand sanitiser becoming scarce, we turned to our inhouse development team to see if it was possible for us to make a Bath House hand sanitiser in order to respond quickly to the growing need for this essential product. Fortunately we had stock of a very high quality natural alcohol which we normally use for making our artisan perfumes and also quality natural glycerine, both essential ingredients for making hand sanitiser, so we changed our fragrance making facility over to full hand sanitiser production. Our formulation carefully follows the guidelines of The World Health Organisation and the UK Department of Health who recommend hand sanitisers should contain over 60% alcohol to be effective against bacteria; ours is made with 82% alcohol. The other ingredient of note is natural glycerine, added because alcohol is very drying on the skin, and this helps to moisturise the skin and prevent dryness. WHO recommend not including fragrance for this type of product and we have consequently followed this guidance.

The product was added to our website and delivered to our own shops, resulting in an upturn in sales for both.

In early March, as we all watched the news each day, the severity of the COVID-19 crisis became very real.  As a business, we were very concerned about the safety of our staff and our own shop customers.  Our weekly catch up meetings turned into daily health and safety briefings, updating staff working guidelines and putting into place a rigorous daily cleaning routine and safe working distances.  Like everyone else, we waited for the inevitable news of lockdown.  When it came, within 2 days, we closed our 7 shops, furloughed 53 staff and implemented a ‘work from home’ plan for remaining staff. While being very grateful for the news about the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and retail grants, fear set in for the huge loss of income stream and ongoing running costs.

For us, it felt like our moral duty to keep parts of our business up and running to allow us to produce these much needed hand sanitisers.  We also needed to safeguard the future of the business as much as possible, both in terms of financial security and ongoing engagement with our valued customers through social media.

The remaining staff are working as follows:-

  • At the Sedbergh head office, we have a very small team of staff (directors Pauline and Gareth Marshall and one other member of staff) processing web orders.  We are working safe distances apart, following strict hygiene rules and guidelines. We plan to keep processing orders unless guidelines change.
  • At Dent manufacturing facility, we have a small team working two shifts making hand sanitisers and stock, ensuring staff safety at all times. We plan to keep making product unless guidelines change.
  • Our creative directors Nigel and Abigail Brooks are working from home, supported by our senior designer Debbi Nicholls (working from her home) on social media campaigns, blogs and website development which is boosting sales on our website as well as keeping us engaged with customers.
  • Our finance director Glyn Marshall and project manager Will Marshall are working from home on everything financial, as well as grant applications.  We have received retail grants for all our shops.

Taking it very much a day at a time, the first week was particularly difficult, dealing with emotional discussions with staff, checking safety measures were in place for remaining staff and juggling director’s skype meetings, while quickly relearning old skills to cover other roles laid bare by furloughing staff.  Five weeks on, we are in a better routine, we have achieved some successes and we are constantly reviewing everything, particularly our online product offer and financial details through regular zoom directors meetings

In terms of hand sanitisers, we are also supporting many local nursing homes, dentists, doctors, hospices and the NHS with supplies of over 1500 bottles free.  We have also given these free to other local businesses staying open to support our communities. Gifts of care packs (hand creams and body washes) to NHS staff have also been sent to hospitals in Cumbria and others in the north west. Feedback from NHS staff, support workers and locals has been incredible, and it has been humbling to be thanked when they are under so much pressure.

We are now an approved supplier to the NHS, who have ordered further quantities of hand sanitisers at a ‘not for profit’ cost price (5,000 to date). 

Online sales through our own website have been growing steadily since our shops closed, and while it can’t compete with the loss of sales from our seven shops, we are really encouraged by this.  In fact, April has just achieved our best ever web sales month, including Christmas.  The phone lines are busy, especially with older customers, and as well placing phone orders, they have very much appreciated a chat and are grateful for us being open for business.  The pattern of orders is changing too, with thank you gifts to those who are helping others, gifts to loved ones in isolation, as well as personal wellbeing purchases.

Connecting with our customers through our website, newsletters and social media is certainly contributing to the increase in online sales.  Promoting health and wellbeing through relaxation has been well received by our customers, who have enjoyed our free Pilates classes, mindfulness blogs and relaxation playlists.

So, who knows what will happen next week, new month, even next year? We just have to keep going, keep thinking, keep changing.  Pick ourselves up and carry on!

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