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You’ve got to be excited by retail to do it well. It’s a challenging sector to be in, with or without Covid, so if you’re not passionate about it it’s not for you. Every day I wake up and really am excited about my role; I’m excited about the different aspects of it, the various challenges I’m faced with every day. I tend to work for the Federation Monday-Friday then at the weekends come back to work in my business; I love selling and upselling, chatting to customers and having conversations with different people throughout the day. Every day is different, which I appreciate.
I’ve been a retailer for 30-plus years, and started off in a very traditional newsagents and built that into a convenience store and added a post office. I’m based in Chesterfield and Sheffield in the North, and started attending branch meetings of the Federation of Independent Retailers – we’re a members organisation and we’re run by members for members.
I gradually became more and more involved and have been fortunate to be able to spend time away from my business – this has enabled me to be increasingly involved with the Federation. I was given the privilege of being the vice president and moved up the ranks to become president. You’d normally be president for one year, but then Covid arrived which meant that I’m still serving as president after two years. We have a conference in October, at which point I will hand over the reins to my vice president.
I now run all the different departments and the senior line managers report to me. I’m the chair of the board, and chair the meeting of the National Council – 33 people from all over the country that sit and debate the future plans of the Federation. My role also involves making the Federation stronger and attracting more members to join.
The fact that I, as an independent retailer myself, head up the NFRN, makes us quite unique. Because I’m in retail myself, I’m making decisions based on what I’ve learned from my own experience – and that’s very varied. Because I’m a small business owner I do or have done it all, from sourcing and selling products to banking and cleaning the toilets. It’s the passion that has kept me going this whole time; I really do love it to death. It’s a great industry to be in.
Independent retailers are very much the backbone of the British retail industry, but all too often they’re forgotten about in favour of multiples. This was the case before the pandemic, but since March 2020 shoppers have really come to appreciate the work that independents do and the role that we play in their lives. At the start, they were panic-shopping essential items at their local supermarkets and walking straight past the independents which weren’t struggling with supply; then, someone somewhere realised that they didn’t want to have to fight for their necessities and queue up for ages, that the independents could fulfil their needs.
Communication and connection with other people has also played a huge part in the success of independent retailers during this challenging period. Some people like to stop and chat with the person serving them – you might be the only other person they’re in contact with on that day – but that’s not possible in a supermarket. You just stand in a queue, pay for your goods and out you go, whereas in an independent shop we appreciate their custom and make sure to connect with people.
Even before the pandemic, some people wouldn’t see anybody else for a week or more at a time, particularly in rural areas, so shopping at independents became a lifeline in terms of social interaction as well as purchasing products they needed to get them through. In terms of statistics, the numbers we’re looking at around the growth of the independent retail sector – the number of customers and transactions we’re seeing, based on credit card transaction data – is an increase of 70%.
This is dependent on where a store is located, because if you’re in a town centre the footfall is much less than what you’re used to, if you’re in a rural area the growth was exceptional. In terms of lockdowns, the first lockdown was very lucrative for independent retailers, the second was less successful because supermarkets had got their act together around deliveries and stock availability.
It depends where you are in the country, too. In terms of newspaper delivery, we’re added around a quarter of a million home deliveries of newspapers – these are customers who previously would have gone into a store, likely a supermarket, to purchase their newspaper but were instead requesting delivery from their local independent. The good news is that these customers have stayed with their chosen independent throughout the period, and we hope that this trend continues but at this stage it’s hard to make a clear-cut prediction.
Overall, the majority of independent retailers have seen an increase in sales and customers, but this is very much dependent on where they are located – for example, I know of a member who has been closed since 31st December because of where his business is, and of course shops in train and tube stations have seen a huge drop in sales and in customers stepping through their doors.
Many stores evolved what they were selling during the course of the pandemic; for example, card shops were closed and therefore a number of independents started selling cards. Fine food retailers evolved to sell essentials as well as artisan food and drink. But the main evolution that we’ve seen is around the way that these retailers are selling. If the pandemic hadn’t happened, maybe in five years’ time we’d be where we are today.
But as things are, things like delivery partners and apps are becoming commonplace where we wouldn’t necessarily have considered them as a viable option pre-pandemic. Large-scale options like Deliveroo and Uber Eats have partnered with independent retailers to collect and deliver their products, but the margins they bring are so small that there’s not much profit in that at all. Instead, a lot of us are working with alternative, smaller-scale delivery companies, finding local options, or delivering ourselves.
A lot of independent retailers sell products that have been produced locally, and that’s increased to a great extent as a result of the pandemic. Suppliers who haven’t been able to sell their products to their usual customers as a result of lockdowns have turned to independent retailers and we have welcomed them with open arms – as have our customers.
Most retailers will no doubt be tired and wanting a break, but the main thing we all need to maintain going forward in order to retain our new, enlarged customer base is keep our customer service exemplary. That’s why customers enjoy shopping with us; it’s part of why they feel safer and better looked after when they shop with us rather than at multiples; and it’s what really sets independent retailers apart from supermarkets.
If you can give customers a great product and a brilliant service, no matter if the products you’re selling are more expensive, then you will hold on to your customers. You have to offer something special, and often that’s down to the character of the person that’s serving the customer – if the customer walks away from an independent shop with a smile on their face, they’re much more likely to return and be loyal. For a lot of independents, if they’re able to retain even 50% of the extra customers they gained during lockdown, they’ll be in a much stronger position than they were pre-pandemic.
The primary challenge that faces us all today is knowing where we will be in six months time and beyond. Where will we be when furlough ends, and when redundancies hit the job market? There have been a lot of delays around financial business considerations, such as VAT payments and professional loans. When these need to be paid back, how will the lay of the land look for the retail industry? How many businesses will survive?
I’m proud to say that the NRFN has a string of benefits to support independent retailers who are facing an uncertain future. We have our own in-house charities and can support retailers who are facing financial difficulties in a number of ways. So far we’ve helped over a hundred independent retailers around the country with different amounts. We also have staff who will travel around the country to meet with our members one-onone in order to see what their needs are, and have deals around the industry which benefit retailers – for example, we have a set-up with Barclays whereby they charge our members less for credit card transactions, meaning that they are saving around a hundred pounds on transaction fees per month, if not more.
Every day I am inspired by independent retailers up and down the country. They have been serving customers – some of whom have had Covid, I have no doubt – every day without fail, and have truly been at the frontline of this pandemic. They’ve strengthened the communities around them and provided a safe and positive environment for shoppers in this period of crisis, all while navigating their businesses through this hugely challenging period. I believe that customers value the role that independent retailers have come to play in their lives hugely, and will continue to do so as we progress out of this crisis.
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