By Daniel Whytock, Down Your High Street
Following the initial lockdown, subsequent circuit-breakers then new lockdowns closing non-essential retail, the pressure has been enormous for independent retailers.
Let’s review the impact the pandemic has had on the independent retail sector and the changes it has imposed.
The “Promise” of lockdown 1
That first lockdown was meant to be the only one. It was sold to the public, and the retailers, as a way to stop the virus and that Christmas would be the saving grace for the sector.
Independent retailers worked hard and implemented the Covid prevention measures as best they could. Unfortunately, the news of another lockdown over Christmas and into the New Year means that the festive season wasn’t the saviour independent retailers hoped for.
The impact of furloughing
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.
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 changes to the furlough rules, particularly now we are in another lockdown, have created behaviour changes. Retailers are using the time they now have available to catch up. They are looking at their marketing and making use of the time to work out what they need to do over the coming months. In many ways, you could say that these nimble retailers have learnt the lessons of the previous lockdowns and are much better prepared.
The consumer’s Covid mindset
One key aspect of the consumer mindset was virus-consciousness. A recent report[i] says 1 in 5 people won’t ever return to the high street to buy clothes. Online shopping increased by over 60%[ii] 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
Back in 1909 Selfridges made the step change in retail. People could come and buy many different things in one place, saving huge amounts of time. The Covid pandemic is accelerating another step change: 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.
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 and the government’s announcement about the plan for relaxing lockdown are providing hope to many independent retailers. Just how long it is before people 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[iii] 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[iv]. 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 immediately. The legacy of all the pressures created by the pandemic 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
Dan 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, from100s 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