THE image of the village bridal boutique as genteel cottage industry could not be further from the truth, according to one local businesswoman.

Emma Meek, the managing director of Miss Bush bridalwear in Ripley High Street, wastes no time laying out her case.

“Weddings are a £14.7 billion industry nationally,” she says. “They support 400,000 people directly and indirectly, from those working in the shops through to hotels, taxis, hospitality, just about anything  that a wedding touches.

“This is a serious contributor to the economy, yet it’s almost impossible to make the Government listen to us.

“Part of the problem is trying to draw together a fragmented industry, but a far bigger issue is getting our points across. It’s a good case and a strong one, not that the Government seems to notice.”

Emma speaks from the experience of a round of television and radio experiences, recently on Sky News after the Prime Minister’s roadmap had been revealed.

“I was getting a bit tired of not being taken seriously so I thought I’d go for a slightly tougher look, with a leather jacket,” she says.

“But when I watched it back I looked like that Spitting Image puppet of Norman Tebbit.”

And Emma has needed that sense of humour, and more, in a year pot-holed by lockdowns.

“By the time this one ends we’ll have been closed for 32 out of the last 48 weeks,” she says. “We’re working hard towards the reopening but there is a lot of catching up to do.

“In our January to March quarter last year we took £200,000, this time round it will be £25,000.  If anyone wants to find me I’ll be here in the shop in a sleeping bag, trying to find the hours to make up that difference.”

When Emma has not been campaigning as “unofficial ambassador” for the industry pressure group What About Weddings – “They like me because I can be a bit vocal” – she has been working to keep her business afloat through an accomplished online offering.

“I’ve spent a lot of money on the online side of the business. So many people live in a digital world now they have certain expectations: good service, a personal touch, and swift replies.

“I pride myself on thinking about every reply I send out. Engage and nurture at every point of contact, understand the customer so that they feel they have had outstanding service before they even set foot in the shop.

“I like to study the top retailers, such as Nike, who have developed the brand online and see what I can learn from them.

“I recently had a Zoom meeting with a customer, so I set up mannequins in the dresses she liked. That makes for interesting conversations, we express opinions, and set the tone for when we can meet face to face.

“At the moment I have about 450 brides to look after, but the situation is constantly shifting as dates change because of the restrictions being eased.

“It’s like making 450 fitted kitchens, all ready to be installed, only for the buyers to move house every six months.”

Taking up her industry theme again, Emma makes short work of the Budget. “A year’s campaigning for nothing,” she says. “Not a single word on weddings, or anything which employs predominantly women. Retail ignored.

“The retail framework is collapsing, but nothing to suggest regeneration of the high street. How will all these empty units be filled?

“The furlough extension was good news, and I’ve had to furlough three full-time employees, but the bad side is that I’ve had to let some part-timers go.”

Some aspects of the business endure, though, not least endless curiosity about the name.

“Ah, yes, Miss Bush,” Emma says. “People tend to make up their own explanations, but she was a lady, a legend really, who ran the local sweet shop next to one of the pubs.

“That was where the bridal business started more than 30 years ago, then we moved to the old Methodist Chapel in the High Street in 2014.

“We’d never think about changing it. Why would we?”

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