CREDIT lenders Smarterbuys Store has seen a rapid rise in new customers this year and a 235% increase in loan applications since the UK’s Coronavirus outbreak was announced in March.

The Durham-based not-for-profit business has helped more than half of its customers struggling with finances during the height of the lockdown by extending payment holidays, agreeing a payment freeze and providing supplier and repair help at no extra cost as well as dealing with a surge in new customers looking for financial help.

Smarterbuys Store, which supplies customers with access to affordable loans for vital household furniture and goods, has had to relocate to larger premises in Craghead Village Hall in Stanley as a result of the company’s growth since the beginning of the year to accommodate the demand and allow more space for additional staffing opportunities.

The business announced last year it was expanding its reach to all low income households, not just social housing, and has quickly grown to become one of the largest independent credit lenders in the North of England.

Chief executive Vicky McCourt said: “The ethical loans market as a whole has experienced a rapid rise this year which is unsurprising given the current situation and increase in redundancies.

“Our focus has always been on ensuring people have access to flexible, affordable and fair lending and want them to know our door is always open to them, physically or virtually.

“It is a struggle when millions of workers have been furloughed on the 80% payment scheme and are worried when this comes to an end if they will be surplus to requirements whilst many businesses struggle, while others are finding that their income has reduced as a result of lost overtime.

“Our team has been working hard throughout the pandemic to stay in touch with new and existing customers to see if their Government backed income allows enough to manage on, if they are to return to work or are facing redundancy or if they have applied for Universal Credit, working with them to see how we can help.

“This pandemic has meant the need for services such as ours has been on the increase so it has prompted a speedier office move than anticipated at the beginning of the year to cope with the demand but for the first time, we can now provide level ground-floor access for visitors to the offices when it is safe to do so as well as creating more room to bring on additional staff to be able to help more people.”

As well as providing household white goods and furniture, the company also offers solutions to short-term borrowing with saving schemes that won’t leave people facing years of staggering debt or being taken advantage of by loan sharks praying on those being affected financially by the Covid-19 outbreak.

“Now that we have entered the second peak and lockdown, the need is greater than ever to improve personal financial wellbeing long term,” Ms McCourt added.

“We have increased and adapted our Save as You Pay scheme which gives borrowers guaranteed cashback at the end of their agreement, which for many would be the first time they would have been able to save even the smallest amounts this year, so we hope to provide reassurance that there is a safer means to an end than unsafe or illegal borrowing.”