By Daniel Whytock, Down Your High Street
March 23rd 2020 is a date independent retailers won’t forget. This was the day a year ago that we all went into lockdown for the first time, the day that all but essential retailers closed. Many of those businesses that had to close their doors are not expected to survive[i].
Whilst the predicted 235,000 retail job losses[ii] also includes the big retailers that have gone under, there will be a significant number coming from independents. The “circuit-breaker” lockdowns in Wales and Northern Ireland, plus the more recent lockdowns have piled even more pressure onto the sector.
So how has Covid-19 impacted independent retailers? And what changes has it forced upon the sector?
The “Promise” of lockdown 1
That first lockdown was meant to be the only one. Independent retailers up and down the country implemented the Covid prevention measures as best they could. They restricted customer numbers in their shops and tried desperately to get customers to follow social distancing measures and to wear face masks when in their shops. The British Retail Consortium (BRC) reported abuse[iii] levels more than doubling, to over 420 incidents a day, both verbal and physical. All because the British public didn’t want to follow the rules the retailers were being instructed to implement.
The burden was placed on the retailer, and the public’s refusal to abide by the rules has led to the need for another lockdown and retailers having to close their doors.
The impact of furloughing
The government’s furlough scheme has provided much needed funding to many businesses.
The impact on independent retailers was significant. Whilst the furlough funds meant they didn’t need to make staff redundant, the inflexibility of the early furlough programme meant that many tasks simply weren’t getting done. Perhaps chief amongst these was marketing activity; something that was desperately needed, but they simply didn’t have time for. We saw many retailers struggling to update their information on our website. Whenever we called them, the response was “I’m on my own, trying to get everything done”.
However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Some of our customers didn’t take any furlough funding. They adapted quickly, going online. The staff took phone orders and then handled the packing and shipping of these phone and online orders. Keeping the sales flowing, the business afloat, and the jobs intact.
The consumer’s Covid mindset
One key aspect of the consumer mindset was virus-consciousness. Even when the first lockdown ended, huge numbers of shoppers stayed away from our high streets, worried about catching Covid-19. A recent report[iv] says 1 in 5 people won’t ever return to the high street to buy clothes. Online shopping increased by over 60%[v] in the first five weeks of the lockdown, but in July (2020) online sales dropped by 10% when people were allowed out again and took advantage of the opportunity to shop in person.
The options available to independent retailers
The Covid pandemic is accelerating a step change in retailing: the move online.
Adapt & Evolve
With figures showing a 60% increase in online sales during the first lockdown, online is clearly the route forward. We don’t mean all sales should be switched online; bricks and mortar stores are still an important part of the UK economy. Although we help independent businesses to sell online, our one stipulation is that they have their own physical ‘high street’ shop as well. DownYourHighStreet.com can either integrate with the shop’s own website or provide them with the online sales tool they need to compete.
In the last few months, over 100 new independent retailers have starting using our platform. In that time, we have seen traffic increase 25% month on month. Our customers have seen, in total 30% increases, month on month, in revenues. A door that is physically closed does not have to mean that sales have to close too.
The independent retailers that adapt will be the ones that come out of 2021 the strongest.
Positives for the retailers
- Buying local
One ray of light that has come from the pandemic is a “use it or lose it” realisation. The media coverage of the pressure and then EU-funded support programmes (via local councils) to promote “Shop Safe, Shop Local” campaigns, has increased the number of people buying from small, local, independent retailers and businesses.
The vaccine rollout is providing hope to many independent retailers. Just how long it is before the majority are immunised, and then go out shopping again, will have a big influence on how many businesses survive.
- Online support
E-commerce platforms, such as Shopify and Wix, are free to start with, with fees only due when trial periods end. DownYourHigStreet, as an e-commerce platform provider, has removed its monthly fee for all new customers. All they pay now is a commission of 15% on sales.
- Touch and feel
Shops are never going to go away, particularly in parts of the retail industry where touch and feel are important to shoppers. The fashion industry particularly will benefit from this. You’re never quite sure whether something will fit and be comfortable when you buy online.
- More disposable income for some
Whilst many people have seen incomes drop, or disappear, others have seen their disposable incomes increase. No commuting and fewer trips out to pubs, restaurants and cinemas mean bank balances are higher. This money is now starting to be spent. For example, The Opal Picture Framing Gallery[vi] in Purley, south London, is enjoying record sales as people have more disposable income.
- Loyalty and interaction
Humans are social animals. We need to interact, and we respond positively to loyalty. Customers enjoy it when retailers recognise them and provide loyalty benefits. Retailers should love loyal customers and make a point of going out of their way to keep them.
Loyalty, however, isn’t an offline only feature. Online loyalty programmes are provided by many companies, such as HTK[vii]. By collecting customer data and combining it with their purchase data, retailers can encourage more sales through personalised communication and offers.
The pressure of Covid on independent retailers isn’t going to go away anytime soon all the vaccine rollout is very encouraging. However, the legacy of all the pressures will continue to hover over many thousands of retailers for years to come. Those independent retailers who do adapt, who do take advantage of people’s willingness to shop online, will be the ones who recover soonest.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Daniel Whytock is CEO of DownYourHighStreet.com – a free to join, low commission online marketplace on a mission to create the world’s longest high street by connecting community with commerce and giving the Great British High Street an online presence. DownYourHighStreet.com hosts thousands of products that were previously unavailable online, from 100s of independent retailers, allowing sellers to create or integrate their online presence saving them time and the costs traditionally associated with establishing a visible online presence. www.downyourhighstreet.com