18 November 2020, 08:16 AM
  • Across the UK, online local shopping initiatives are emerging to support independent retailers in the run-up to Christmas – and experts believe they’re here to stay
Behind the online initiatives boosting indie sales

Britain’s independent retailers have had a year unlike any in recent memory. For many, lockdowns and low consumer confidence have resulted in reduced sales, and in some cases closures. According to the Federation of Small Businesses, as of April 2020, 41% of small firms had temporarily closed, and ONS figures showed that of those that were still trading, nearly a quarter had reported that their turnover had dropped by more than 50%.

With the clock ticking on the countdown to Christmas, SMEs now more than ever need the support of their local communities – and a number of regional initiatives and campaigns are looking to do just that. Digital marketplaces and online directories have sprung up around the country in the hopes of making it easier for consumers to find and shop at their local businesses.

Online directories shine a light on local

In Leeds, organisers have bolstered the Leeds Indie Food Directory that was originally launched in March to showcase the city’s local shops. Alongside the directory, Leeds Indie Food has launched a shop of products from the region’s businesses, including hampers packed with locally sourced goods for festive season gifting.

“We wanted to create something new whilst shining a light on our amazing indie scene here in Leeds,” Simon Fogal, of Chapter 81, which funded the website, told Speciality Food. “Over the first weekend, we have seen sales driven via our directory, and the hampers have really helped promote new businesses, too,” he said.

With retailers in the midst of a key trading period, Simon said that supporting local shops will help businesses survive the Covid-19 pandemic and keep local people in jobs. “At this time of year it is so easy (especially in lockdown) to go online and spend with the bigger retailers, but we really want to encourage more local shopping,” he said.

Leeds isn’t the only area where regional initiatives are supporting independent shops. Hackney Council has urged residents to buy local through its “Love Hackney, Shop Local” campaign, which was announced in the shadow of England’s new lockdown restrictions. The campaign introduces My Virtual Hackney, a simple, online business directory for the borough, which allows businesses to sell their goods via click and collect.

Help Kent Buy Local was a programme established in the early days of lockdown in March to make it easier for consumers to shop locally. The campaign was so successful, that it expanded into Sussex and Essex as Buy Local South East.

Jill Sargent, business development manager at Produced in Kent, which was behind the initiative, said the response from customers has been helped by a new passion for local shopping. “Customers are voting ‘local and sustainable’ with where they spend their money, and we’re seeing this across the south east.”

Digital marketplaces boost independents’ online sales

Elsewhere, the company Good Sixty is offering independent food retailers and producers the chance to sell their products online. Created in 2016 as an online marketplace for local businesses in Bristol, the business has expanded further afield this year to help food shops reach a wider audience.

“Consumer demand for better, ethical, convenient food is at an all-time high, and it has been proven time and again: shopping locally has a positive impact on our neighbourhoods, ploughing money back into the local economy and strengthening communities,” said Good Sixty co-founder Chris Edwards.

“The service we provide is also an essential tool for small food businesses in this digital age, helping the city’s retailers and producers share their passion, reach new customers and therefore be in a position to compete with the ‘Big Guys’,” Chris said.

By using the platform, consumers can shop from a variety of local retailers in one place, make a single purchase and have it delivered to their door via a carbon neutral delivery service.

Jill agreed that ease of use is a huge factor in the success of online platforms. “The embracement of technology, from cardless payments, to click and collect or payment on online for delivery, it’s all become so much easier, hassle free. In fact, it’s usually easier now to get a click and collect from a local shop than from one of the supermarkets.

“The easier you make it for people the more likely people are to stay,” she said.

In addition to Bristol, Good Sixty is available in Bath, Oxford and London’s Borough Market. On average, the company says retailers on its platform saw 10 times the volume for sales compared to individual online shop sales. “This clearly demonstrates that there is strength in numbers for these independents: uniting and working together in this way is proving a great success, and offers a simple way for consumers to support their local high street or market,” the company said.

Simon agreed that community campaigns are a great way for businesses to connect with consumers and other local shops, and he believes they’re becoming more widespread. “We do see these becoming more popular and others following suit. I think this time has brought on the rebirth of the high street/shopping local and people are realising they can get really good quality items in indies,” he said.

“Without a doubt, this is a trend that is here to stay,” Jill added. “Before there were barriers, perhaps a lack of knowledge and accessibility being high on those list of considerations. But these barriers have been removed, through social media and initiatives like Buy Local South East.”

By zeroing in on their local communities, these initiatives have found success. “It’s about sharing knowledge, making connections and inviting collaborations. It’s about broadening people’s horizons on what local can mean. And it’s about community,” Jill said.

“From virtual Christmas markets, to click and collect farm shops and drive through farmers markets. And the shoppers are really into it all. It’s so much more accessible, but more than that, it feels good to shop locally, to feel that sense of belonging and being part of your community.”

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