Published: 06:00, 04 January 2021
| Updated: 08:16, 04 January 2021
When Kent went into its first lockdown in March, many people found themselves looking for projects to keep themselves busy.
Some took up more exercise, others learnt a language - but one woman from Thanet hatched a plan to bring her local high streets online.
Karen Brinkman founded the Thanet Virtual High Street
Karen Brinkman, from Westbrook, started a Facebook group in the hopes of connecting traders who could promote their businesses and advertise their services in a much easier way.
Following a successful online summer fair, Thanet Virtual High Street was born, giving the isle's business owners an opportunity to find new ways of reaching customers in the comfort of their own homes.
Mrs Brinkman said: "I was on furlough and I'm a very organised person who likes to do things, and I just felt that so many of my friends and family were being affected who were being self-employed.
"I just had one of those lightbulb moments and thought, 'I wonder whether this would work?'"
With more than 3,500 people now joined to the Facebook group, the 48-year-old expanded the idea to a website where local businesses are able to advertise themselves to customers for £22 per year.
For some traders, it was the first time they had ever even considered using online resources to find customers.
Mrs Brinkman said: "I can think of two businesses in Westgate that never ever had a Facebook page, so they've used it to give them ideas.
"The great thing about the group is the networking side of it, and a lot of businesses have been working with each other and getting ideas from each other."
For many traders the coronavirus pandemic was a sink or swim moment, where adapting to working online was the only way to get in front of customers during the lockdowns.
It is something businesses are continuing to face, as Kent remains in Tier 4 measures.
But Mrs Brinkman also thinks shoppers have found a new perspective on which businesses they choose to support when they shop.
She said: "I think people's ideas of wanting to support local businesses have changed - I know myself would normally have gone to Boots and looked at their Christmas gifts.
"It didn't enter my head whether I was allowed to or not, I wanted to find local businesses and support them, and I think people's mindset because of the pandemic has changed.
Mrs Brinkman added: "This group was not created to take anything away from an actual high street. I see it more of a platform to tempt people to visit local shops when they open."
With nearly 100 businesses signed up to the Thanet Virtual High Street, some traders believe the idea has been vital to the growth of their business.
Cheryl Llewellyn, from Ramsgate, started Essentially Original during the lockdown, offering handmade items such as microwavable pocket-sized hand warmers, yoga eye pillows and migraine masks.
Through the connections she has made on the virtual high street group, Cheryl is planning on working with other small businesses to open a physical store in Ramsgate selling items to local shoppers.
The 54-year-old said: "Once we come out of lockdown and we're able to do that, we'll have a shop with seven or eight of us, forming a sort of collective.
"All of this came about because we're all part of Thanet Virtual High Street."
Other businesses launched in 2020 have also received a boost from being part of the online collective.
Sam Halliwell launched Mimosa Soapery during lockdown, making small batches of vegan and eco-friendly soap from her Margate home.
She said: "It has helped me launch my handmade soap business by letting people see me.
"The support and camaraderie is lovely and just seeing what people are making and doing is brilliant. Who knew we had so much going on right on our doorstep?"
Local people joined to the Facebook group have said it has helped them discover businesses they never even knew existed.
Victoria Turvey said: "I have found businesses that I never knew existed which has enabled me to buy local and support small independent businesses rather than big corporations.
"If I’d not been added to this group I wouldn’t have known about all the fabulous, hard-working people running amazing businesses with great products right on my doorstep and I’m grateful for that opportunity."