LONDON – For Aimée Felone, whose children’s bookstore in London has stories with ethnically diverse characters, the protests against Black Lives Matter last summer were, in one word, overwhelming.
“We got attention like never before,” said Ms. Felone. People across the country were asking for books on anti-racism and looking for black-owned businesses like their Round Table Books business to undo years of economic racial inequality. Sales of the business went over the roof in early June.
But pandemic restrictions had closed the store’s warehouse. After two weeks, the team of four struggled to fulfill online orders. A publishing house affiliated with the bookstore, which Mrs. Felone also co-founded, sold every book she had published. New customers grew impatient.
“The sales have been wonderful,” said Ms. Felone. The problem was “the extra burdens that I believe a lot of people don’t know is putting on the small black businesses they want to help”.
Nearly a year after the peak of the protests, which may have been the largest social movement in US history and quickly spread around the world, companies are looking for ways to turn that chaotic surge in interest into regular, dependable sales.
In the UK, an effort was launched by Swiss, a British rapper. He calls it Black Pound Day, and the idea is simple: once a month people should spend money on black companies.
“It’s about bringing in money and trying to spread it in our community,” Swiss said in an interview. “You can’t always rely on the government,” he added, “so we have to turn to ourselves and find solutions for ourselves. Black Pound Day is one of those solutions. “
Black Pound Days happen on the first Saturday of each month – next is May 1st – and there are some signs that the idea is working. The first Black Pound Day in June led to a sudden leap in sales for the participating companies. According to a study by Jamii, a company that supports black businesses, and Translate Culture, a marketing agency, some topped the previous month’s sales in one day agency.
Equally important is that companies that continued to apply on Black Pound Day continue to be rewarded with higher sales each month, said Khalia Ismain, founder of Jamii.
The concept is a variation on other efforts to increase the wealth of blacks by pooling resources. In the United States, the tradition goes back to black banks, founded after the Civil War, when black Americans were exposed to segregation and exclusion from financial services. More recently, people who emigrated from the Caribbean after World War II to help rebuild the UK and work for the new National Health Service – known as the Windrush Generation – have dealt with discrimination by offering some form of savings and introduced credits known as affiliates. Small groups still use it to save together outside of the banking system.
The 38-year-old Swiss, real name Pierre Neil, grew up in south London. His grandparents had come to the UK from Barbados and Jamaica. At 17, he became famous with So Solid Crew, a garage and hip-hop group with dozens of members. In 2001 her song “21 Seconds” topped the UK charts.
But the group’s reputation has always been tied to gang culture and violence – a point Swiss pushed back against in “Broken Silence,” a song he co-wrote, in which he described how the group felt about the media and the government has been mistreated and wrongly accused of its low socio-economic status.
“I made socially conscious songs from back then as a teenager,” said Swiss, adding that he was inspired by rappers Tupac and Nas.
In business today
April 30, 2021, 12:36 p.m. ET
Swiss said he had pondered the idea of Black Pound Day for years and realized how few businesses blacks seemed to own.
Even if Black Pound Day is a simple idea, it eliminates a complicated problem. Only 5 percent of small and medium-sized businesses in the UK are owned by black, Asian or other ethnic minorities. A study by the British Business Bank, a state-owned bank that supports small businesses, and consulting firm Oliver Wyman found that ethnic minority entrepreneurs face systemic disadvantages and that the average annual turnover of a black entrepreneur is £ 10,000 less than that of white entrepreneurs in 2019 .
The barriers to business success are numerous, but one of the biggest is how difficult it is to get funding. Only 0.02 percent of the venture capital invested in the UK from 2009 to 2019 went to black female founders. That’s 10 women in a decade.
These barriers contribute to large income and wealth disparities between black and white households in the UK. The total net worth of a mid-range household owned by a White UK person (including property, investments and retirement) is £ 313,900 ($ 436,000). For a Black Caribbean household it is £ 85,900 and for a Black African household only £ 34,000, the national statistics agency estimates.
Ms. Ismain, the founder of Jamii, which offers a one-stop shopping site for black businesses, said her organization and initiatives like Black Pound Day wanted to remind consumers to keep an eye on black businesses even during anti-racism protests no front page was news.
“If it’s not trendy, don’t always think about it, you are falling into old habits and if you can’t find alternatives to things you already buy anyway, it’s just not very sustainable,” said Ms. Ismain. “That’s the thought process behind Jamii – it makes it super easy to find companies.”
For Afrocenchix, a hair care brand for natural Afro hair, Black Pound Day was transformative. Every month on Black Pound Day, the company makes two or three times its normal sales. To promote the day, it offers customers free delivery and a packet of tea and cookies – also known as cookies in the US – with their order.
“We were trolled a bit on the first Black Pound Day by a lot of people telling us we were racist and not British,” said Rachael Corson, co-founder of Afrocenchix. In response, she said, she and her co-founder, Joycelyn Mate, thought, “What’s more British than tea and cookies?”
Since the first Black Pound Day, they have doubled their number of customers, and in 2020 Afrocenchix sales were five times the previous year.
“It made a huge difference in brand awareness for us,” said Ms. Corson.
And the influx of customers and revenue should help the Afrocenchix founders with their next goal of overcoming venture capital-raising opportunities. You are trying to raise £ 2 million.
For others, the benefits of Black Pound Day have diminished over time, and they speculate that consumer interest has been spread across more black businesses. But Natalie Manima, the founder of Bespoke Binny, an online homeware brand that sells online, said the attention her company has received since people searched for black-owned retailers during the protests last summer has been “life changing”.
The interest “didn’t stop,” said Ms. Manima. “It’s not the same barrage as it was, but I’ve never returned to pre-protest sales levels.”
She remembered the day in early June when she woke hundreds of orders for her products, including lampshades, pot holders and blankets. It took her a few days to track down the source of the surge – a list of black-owned companies that were floating around on Instagram at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests.
With Britain locked down, the manufacturer of its products was closed, as was her daughter’s kindergarten. So Ms. Manima herself packed orders late at night and early in the morning until she had sold out everything and had to stop to take orders.
But when manufacturers reopened and their business went smoothly again, customers kept coming back. Since then she has moved into a larger office (twice) and hired a team.
“I went to this one from a one-woman show and I know it all came down to what happened in June,” she said.
The experience at Round Table Books, the children’s bookstore, is proof of how difficult it can be to permanently change people’s spending habits, even with the help of initiatives like Black Pound Day. The shop was closed for the whole winter in accordance with official requirements. It sells books online, but it’s still tough to hold your own against giants like UK bookseller Waterstones and Amazon.
“If you don’t have the physical bookstores open, I find that a lot of the attention is on the bigger brands,” said Ms. Felone. But she said the store will reopen in early May and that she will continue to support Black Pound Day.