2020 has certainly had its challenges, but it hasn’t all been ‘doom and gloom’, say the owners of Valerie Manning Jewellers and Giftware. Julie Ashenhurst and Keith Gordon say that the resilience of their Strabane customers has helped them through some difficult months – including the postponement of their own wedding in Lanzarote from June 2020 to June 2021 – and an added bonus has been branching out into an online business with some help from Derry City and Strabane District Council.

An unexpected upside of the closure due to coronavirus restrictions was that we finally had time to focus on online sales through a website and, with support from Derry City and Strabane District Council’s COVID-19 recovery grant, we have now been able to invest in the digital side of business with a new laptop and printer as well as digitising a large amount of stock on an iPad.

It’s great to be able to separate the online side because it is effectively a separate business. The lockdown gave us the opportunity to start up the website which is something we had always wanted to do but never had the time.

We also took the opportunity to freshen up the interior of the premises with some new paintwork.

It wasn’t all gloom and doom, you have to focus on the positives as much as possible. It’s been a bleak time for everyone and you would rather be open as normal, but it has given us a bit of time and breathing space to do the painting, to build up the website.

Our suppliers have been very, very good which has been a big help.

We have so many customers who in the past would have just dropped in for a chat when they were passing and we always loved to see them coming but they feel they can’t now with the limited numbers, but people have commented that they feel safe and happy to come in because we only allow two at a time so it’s good that we can reassure people that way.

We are so lucky to have the internal corridor outside our door so people are able to stand in out of the wind or rain while they wait to come in, and they can also take a look at stock in the window.

We have found that while people like to look at our stock online, if they are thinking of purchasing they prefer to come in and see it for themselves first and we’re happy for them to do so. We’re lucky that jewellery isn’t a seasonal thing.

We took over in 2014 but Valerie Manning has been a fixture in Strabane since the mid-1980s, for nearly 40 years, so we’ve had customers who came in as children and now they’re coming in looking to buy their engagement ring. The people in Strabane are lovely. What we are going through this year is bad but we have been through a lot in Strabane and we are resilient. People are very loyal and do support the shops in the town. We have reps coming in saying Strabane is a great wee trading town and that’s because we are nearly all independent and that often means better service. Excellent customer service is something we always pride ourselves on, we go above and beyond to provide a customer with what they want and with the aftercare we offer.

We’re prepared for as normal a Christmas as we can, Christmas can’t be cancelled, people need it this year more than ever, they need something to look forward to. We will take it as it comes – it’s so hard to know how much stock to order – and we will keep the website going, in time we may be able to take someone on part-time to look after web sales, but nothing beats the one-to-one customer interaction.

And to bring some added cheer this year, customers to Valerie Manning can expect to catch a glimpse of Santa in a new heated grotto leading into the shop in the coming weeks! Keep your eyes peeled!