Europe Economy

'It won't be the same': Italy's small stores reopen after virus lockdown, but life has changed

Key Points
  • Italy has started to lift some lockdown measures, including allowing certain shops to reopen.
  • Small and medium-sized businesses are seen as the economic backbone of Italy.
  • Small business owners know it could take a long time for their businesses, and shopping habits, to get back to normal.
Customers at a bookshop in Rome on the first day of reopening during lockdown, on April 20, 2020 in Rome, Italy.
Simona Granati - Corbis

Italy's legion of booksellers, stationers and artisan businesses have started to re-open their doors after a bruising period of lockdown in the country.

There is a sense of both trepidation, and hope, that business can get back to normal.

Nationwide restrictions on public life and businesses have been tough on many small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) in Italy, many of which are family-owned and passed down the generations, often weathering turbulent periods in the economy.

After Covid-19, business owners know it could take a long time for their businesses, and shopping habits, to get back to normal.

"I'm very happy to re-open the bookshop, even though it will be very difficult," Paola, who co-owns the Open Door bookshop in Rome with her sister Lavinia, said to CNBC just ahead of its re-opening.

"(There are) no people around as the social-distancing measures are having a great impact, especially in small places like ours. For sure, it won't be as it was before Covid. Lockdown has been very tough," Paola said, especially as they had no income while the rent still had to be paid.

Aside from their importance as family enterprises, Italy's SMEs are seen by many as the economic backbone of the country.  Italian SMEs generate 66.9% of the overall value added in the Italian "non-financial business economy," exceeding the EU average of 56.4%, according to EU data from last year.

The share of employment generated by SMEs is even larger, at 78.1%, compared to the EU average of 66.6%. Micro firms (which employ up to nine people) are particularly important, providing 44.9% of employment, compared to the EU average of 29.7%. 

Italy's SMEs are facing a huge challenge, however, as the country's economy is expected to contract 9.1% in 2020, according to the International Monetary Fund's latest forecasts, as the economic impact of the coronavirus takes effect. Italy has been the epicenter of Europe's pandemic, with over 187,000 confirmed cases of the virus, as of Wednesday, and over 25,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

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'Broad shoulders'

Only the toughest businesses, and business owners, will be able to get through the difficult period ahead of them, according to Francesca Anichini.

She and her sister Eugenia are the owners of A.Anichini, a children's clothing boutique in central Florence that has been owned by her family for four generations since 1912.

Francesca told CNBC that she and her sister were lucky as they had "spalle larghe" (broad shoulders) and were equipped to deal with the pressures and challenges to come, but that other small businesses were taking a risk to consider reopening.

Nonetheless, the lockdown had been a worrying time for her family, she said. "We understood that even at the time of reopening it would have been very difficult to get back into the production line," she said Wednesday. "It's been a distressing month and a half (in lockdown)."

Like many other shops in the heart of Florence, A.Anichini gets a lot of custom from tourists, as well as customers looking for bespoke children's clothes for special occasions. With no non-essential activities allowed right now, demand for their hand-made clothes has declined.

"We also have a website where we offer our own clothes that are hand-made by our seamstresses. But even the site has stopped … This clothing is mainly intended for particular events, baptisms, weddings, parties and special days. All those things have been suspended with the suspension of social life."

Francesca said that although she and her sister reopened their boutique on Tuesday, custom was slow, with people seemingly reluctant to go out shopping because it still seems like a non-essential activity.

"There is a clear feeling, and this is what the Italian authorities, virologists and civil protection experts are repeating, that we will have to get used to living "suspended" in a "middle world" for a long period, waiting until an effective vaccine is found," she said. "We are very confused. But we try not to think about it and face the problems that arise every day."

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Tourism trade

Italy has started to tentatively lift its strict lockdown measures which were imposed on March 10 and which saw all non-essential businesses close and Italians confined to their houses unless they had valid reasons to leave.

Now, shops selling books, stationery, and clothes for infants and children are allowed to reopen although some of Italy's worst-hit regions have held back, fearful of releasing restrictions too early and experiencing a second wave of infections.

The lifting of restrictions comes with strings attached too, with strict rules on shop owners wearing gloves and masks and having to implement staggered entry to the store and keep shoppers apart.

Many of Italy's SMEs rely on tourists, but with air travel still halted and people blind-sided by the pandemic, there is little prospect of tourists returning to popular destinations like Rome, Venice or Florence any time soon.

The lack of visitors is a worry for Il Papiro, an artisan company based in Florence that uses traditional Tuscan techniques, such as marbleizing, to produce hand-decorated papers, diaries and keepsakes.

Il Papiro, which was founded in 1976, is also preparing to reopen its handful of stores located in Italy's tourism hubs of Florence, Rome, Venice, Siena and Cortona. 

"Il Papiro caters for the most part to a clientele of a tourist type and this makes us think that at the reopening the work will be very slow," Maria Rottoli, Il Papiro's wholesale and marketing manager, told CNBC.

"We hope to be able to start again as soon as possible, to be able to welcome customers in the special atmosphere of our stores, and to convey our work and the tradition of Florentine artisan techniques."

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