Falling back in love with the high street
Shoppers rediscovered their local high streets during the Covid-19 pandemic – a welcome trend which has given independent retailers a major opportunity to move their businesses forward.
Shop owners also responded with speed to the challenge of the pandemic by changing the way they do business, with e-commerce and cashless transactions on the rise.
Those changes came to the fore at a Lancashire Business View roundtable discussion on the retail sector’s future, held in association with cash and carry wholesaler Stax Trade Centres and chaired by publisher Richard Slater.
Stax owner David Hibbert said: “A lot of people in the independent retail market for a good number of years were planning on exiting. There was a view that it had run its course and they were going to sell out to a restaurant or something else.
“Then Covid hit and it just completely flipped for independent retailers. They suddenly became key retailers.
“They were local. People weren’t driving in to big stores, in fact the big stores weren’t open initially, and it’s given a new lease of life to the independent sector.”
He added: “People have suddenly realised who their supporters are in the community. They’ve rediscovered the high street to some degree.”
David said independent retailers had “made 10 years’ development in 10 months. They’ve gone online, they’ve adapted their own business, and everybody suddenly appreciates local business again.”
Jeff Moody, commercial director of the British Independent Retailers Association (BIRA), said there had been winners and losers during the pandemic, with the DIY and hardware sector doing particularly well.
He added: “What has really come to light is how quickly independents changed, compared to other sectors in retail.
I believe there’s a great opportunity for small businesses over the next two years because people have valued the service that they’ve received
“They’ve really adapted to new technologies. We’ve noticed a massive shift towards e-commerce and omni-commerce. There’s been a real change in the way they engage with customers.”
He also revealed post-pandemic footfall in London is down 55 per cent, compared to 19 per cent in the capital’s suburbs and he added: “Shop locally has just transformed retail high streets.”
He said: “People are going out shopping, but not to the big cities or the main towns. It has been a real learning curve for anyone in retail.
“I believe there’s a great opportunity for small businesses over the next two years because people have valued the service that they’ve received, but also those services have improved.”
However, he said they had to continue to change and to innovate and he added: “I want retailers to be able to trade online as part of their business, not as their whole business.”
He revealed that BIRA had plans to launch its own non-profit trading platform for independent retailers and he added: “As a local community if you buy online, you should buy locally online.
“It reduces the distance to and from a delivery zone and puts money back into the local area, and that’s the key.”
Robert Milliken, director at electrical wholesaler Dencon Accessories, said independent retailers had been “light of foot” when it came to getting their shops open during the pandemic, compared to bigger businesses. He added: “It gave the independents a fantastic leg-up, they were so busy.”
His fellow director Trish Milliken said people had also relished the personal approach that local shops offered. She said: “They’ve realised that walking to your local shop or going to the local shopping centre is a good thing to do, because they’re seeing people again.”
David Hibbert warned there were still major challenges ahead, with supply chain difficulties and product sourcing and transportation problems.
Jeff Moody said: “Retailers are not going to be caught in the way they were 20 months only stocking brands. They are far more open to stocking tertiary brands. They’re looking at their sourcing.”
He added that there was a major shift among consumers for eco-products, with smaller independent retailers again able to move with more agility to change their product ranges, compared to the bigger businesses.
Buying patterns were also changing, he added and he said: “There’s been a massive move away from cash.”
However, Trish Milliken said it was important that retailers continued to cater for older people who didn’t use cards. She added: “While we’re opening up new channels for payments, we mustn’t close down the old ones.”
Bryan Clover, chief executive of the Rainy Day Trust, a charity supporting the home improvement workforce and their families, said it was getting calls for help from workers in debt after being on furlough. “Stress and anxiety” were other major issues to be faced.
The ‘pingdemic’ caused by track and trace was also having an impact on independent retailers, he revealed. He said: “If you’re a small independent retailer and you’ve got two staff and you lose one or both, that affects your business in a big way.
“If you’re B&Q and you have 30,000 staff, losing half a dozen doesn’t make any difference at all.
“So, losing a body because they have to self-isolate for ten days has a disproportionately large impact on your business straight away and it’s immediate because if you can’t process people through the tills you’re not taking money.”
And he added: “Our biggest problem as a charity is reaching small business owners to convince them that actually we can work alongside them.
“We can help them look after their staff, get their staff back to work sooner, support their staff so that they don’t have to go out and recruit. If you go and recruit somebody it costs you time and effort and money. We can take that away in that we can help them retain their staff.”