Sending jewellery to customers in 15 different countries around the world wasn’t something Martin Fleet expected to be doing during a global pandemic, but then it seems a little bit of lockdown luxury from the islands was just the thing for those missing out on an Orkney visit.
“We had a lot of online sales where folk were treating themselves with a pick me up gift because they weren’t coming here this year,” says Martin, managing director of Sheila Fleet Jewellery and son of the eponymous Orkney designer. “It really did surprise us, but it shows how fond people are of Orkney and Scotland as a nation across the world.”
Those online sales during the lockdown period were an unexpected boost to the business, which was forced to temporarily close its flagship Kirk Café and Gallery in Tankerness, and shops in Kirkwall, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Most of the company’s staff were furloughed too, with jewellery production halted and the workshops in Tankerness falling silent in late March.
“We had actually started with a two-week rota in the workshop before the lockdown, not knowing what was going to happen,” recalls Martin. “The folk who could work remotely took everything they needed home and got set up, hitting the ground running when we went into lockdown.”
From then on, it was just Martin and mum Sheila working at a distance across the office in Tankerness, answering the phones, responding to emails and getting orders out from the website.
“I loaded up a lot of the stock from the shop in Kirkwall and took it out to the Kirk in Tankerness, using the café as one big stockroom,” says Martin. “We were fortunate to have a good amount to pick from, but customers were so understanding and patient to wait, or accept an alternative, if we couldn’t fulfil their order.”
Unsurprisingly perhaps, demand for Sheila Fleet’s Rainbow Collection – designed back in 2005 - proved particularly high, thanks to the rainbow symbol’s adoption as an expression of support for the NHS.
“We didn’t promote or market it because we felt it wasn’t in good taste to be jumping on the back of the NHS support campaign, but people found it through internet searches,” says Martin. “Lots of sales were made to folk in the NHS or their families, which was nice as it represented a sense of hope during a difficult time.”
As lockdown gradually eased, Martin and Sheila began to think about how they could safely bring back their staff when the time came. A first step was the installation of acrylic screens between all the workbenches and office spaces in Tankerness.
“We then started with a skeleton team in early June to trial things and see how they would work,” explains Martin. “That was a success and we’ve slowly taken more members of staff back to start making the orders we couldn’t fulfil for the website during the lockdown period.”
The Kirk Café and Gallery – always a hugely popular destination for locals and visitors alike – has also now reopened, with fewer tables and some subtle alterations to ensure physical distancing can be observed.
“We spoke to Leo Kerr, who made all of our bespoke furniture, and put him in touch with the same company that supplied the acrylic screens for our workshop,” says Martin. “Leo created barriers between the seat backs, and we’ve repeated the grasses effect from our exterior windows on the screening.
“It makes it cosier and more private for the folk in there and looks like it was meant to be - not just a screen installed because of the Covid situation. We’ve also got a few dividers made with oak frames that we can move around to create difference spaces.”
With staff all trained up, it was then just a case of seeing if the customers would return. And they certainly have.
“Folk have been really supportive and, on the first weekend we reopened, we had a lot of local people coming,” says Martin. “We have an online booking system now, but people can also pick up the phone, or just pop out to see us. We’ll do our best to accommodate everybody, safely, but want it to be manageable for the staff and for customers to feel that they’re not packed in a space.”
It’s about creating confidence and we’ll listen to feedback from customers and adapt as we go forward.
Like businesses throughout Orkney, Sheila Fleet Jewellery will be operating in unknown territory over the coming months, though Martin remains optimistic about the future. The company has plans to open a new shop in St Andrews, either later this year or next, and is set to launch a brand-new website.
“We’re resilient in Orkney and punch above our weight in the world,” says Martin. “The recovery will be a team effort for all of us in the islands, but we have the assets in our amazing attractions and the people too. We’re all in this together.”
The Promoting Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020 Programme.