Protecting our small independent retailers

It will have been impossible for anyone to have missed the constant stream of news on the UK’s retail industry for months now, however, in November 2020, it reached fever-pitch. Despite this time of year traditionally being a fanfare of over-the-top adverts, enticing deals and glittery marketing ploys, it has instead delivered headlines featuring a woeful combination of words: ‘store closures’, ‘job losses’, ‘demise of the Highstreet’ and so on.

Businesses large and small have felt the strain of extended lockdown measures (with high street heavyweights Next and Mark & Spencer reporting gloomy sales figures), but it has been a particularly testing, and in many cases impossible, time for shops that rely solely on visitors to their bricks and mortar stores. Whilst online retail giants such as Amazon profit from consumers’ inevitable diversion towards digital perusing, and supermarkets report increased sales as shoppers flock to buy little extras – books, cosmetics, clothing – on top of the essentials, small independent stores are buckling under the strain of forced closures, particularly in the lead up to Christmas.

In comparison to the large retailers, smaller businesses do not have the capacity to grow their e-commerce capabilities and therefore miss out on a slice of the ‘online shopping’ pie. Not only is the ‘back-end’ technological side of things an expensive output, the success of online retailers also depends on sizeable marketing and advertising campaigns, influencer outreach and the ability to deliver the goods to people’s homes from large warehouses, all of which require substantial funds.

Although this ‘new world’, where shoppers have no option but to fill their virtual baskets with 2D pictures of items, means that those that can operate in this way stand the best chance of surviving, should the ‘successful’ business models of the web’s retail goliaths be something all businesses strive towards?

Some of the reasons indie shops are so treasured are also the reasons they struggle in this climate: they’re often brimming with one-offs making them unsuitable for online shopping; they’re family-owned and don’t have the budget for professional photography, making their online shops look less professional in comparison to the larger retailers; they often come very low down on google search results, again owing to budget constraints, making their products tricky to find; and their handmade/one-off items are not featured repeatedly on the Instagram pages of the annual love island alumni and their thousands of followers.

​Part of their charm is the ‘experience’ one has when shopping in their stores, not just the transaction element the online world revels in. It’s getting to know the stories of how the item was crafted by a knowledgeable and passionate retail assistant, it’s the personal service you get when you walk through the door or the recognition you receive owing to the fact you’ve visited every Saturday in November on the hunt for the perfect gift, it’s the smell of the old books or the candles on sale, and so on.

We’re all hoping that in the coming months things will start to resemble something akin to normality, but there’s a very really possibility that as we start getting use out of shoes once more and venturing into the outside world, we might well be met with a very different high street. The quaint, unique little stores that used to be the perfect place to shop for Christmas presents may no longer break up the lines of familiar businesses that have become household names.

​There have been plenty of articles released this month with guides on how we can prevent this from being the fate of independent stores. They are all underpinned by the message that these small decisions made on the consumer’s behalf will not only protect the jobs of millions, but it will also protect our economy: according to research, for every £1 spent with a small or medium-sized business, 63p stayed in the local economy compared to 40p with a larger business. Here are some tips we have picked up:

  • When looking online, shop for the shop you know as opposed to the product you’re looking for
  • Check out Etsy (home of independent retailers and craftspeople) for unique, thoughtful gift ideas
  • Check out Bookshop.org which is hosting online shopfronts for more than 250 of the UK’s independent booksellers
  • Hunt down some of the virtual forums that may be on offer in place of your local Christmas market. These have been set up to offer the chance to buy direct from people who would have been running stalls this year
  • Follow and engage with the social media pages of independent retailers you know and love
  • If you are not displaying any symptoms of coronavirus, simply pay your local independent shops a visit
  • Buy gift cards for family/friends for Christmas so that they can visit the smaller shops when things are back open
  • Leave positive reviews on the websites of your favourite retailers

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