COMMENT: Why Covid-19 doesn’t have to mean the end of indie retail

Stores may be closed but there a number of ways independent retailers can use this time to engage with customers, embrace technology and prepare themselves to come back fighting when the crisis is over, even if sales have slowed. Gary Williams, chairman of Hatton Garden BID in North London, explains how.

Covid-19 doesn’t have to mean the end of indie retail comment Gary Williams Hatton Garden BID opinion
Weathering the coronavirus crisis as an indie retailer is all about identifying ways in which you can reach and engage with customers, Gary William writes.

As retailers across the country temporarily close their physical stores and reduce their working hours due to coronavirus restrictions, now more than ever we must think creatively about how we can use this time wisely.

Concern, panic and fear for the future are acute at the moment. The stark reality is that many small and independent businesses will be lost in the wake of this crisis – but not every independent retailer must meet this fate.

The Chancellor’s latest measures aim to help self-employed and small business owners keep their heads above water in the coming months, meaning many independent retailers can use this time to think and innovate. By focusing on the pockets of space this crisis has created for ingenuity, vision and creativity, small businesses have a chance to develop, adapt and future-proof their business and brand as well as focus on their long-term vision.

COMMENT: Covid-19 doesn’t have to mean the end of indie retail
Gary Williams.

Hopefully we will not face another crisis of this magnitude in our lifetimes, but we should nevertheless do all we can to bolster our retail businesses against such catastrophic global events, should we ever have to face such a crisis again.

Focus on what we can do, rather than what we can’t

You might be feeling worried about what this crisis means for your business. That’s understandable. With stores closed, sales are inevitably going to slow – even if you can make sales through your website. There’s very little we can do to change this for now, so put your energy into some of the other ways you can engage with your customers and add value.

A great way to do this is to embrace the power of technology and social media to create a robust digital brand. Evaluate your website and whether it needs a refresh to ensure it’s up to date. Consider adding a blog page so you can share your sector expertise with customers even while your store is closed. Look at your logo, website imagery and social media channels. Are all of these assets the best reflection of your brand as it currently stands?

Take the opportunity, now that your store is closed, to assess all of your digital assets. Make updates where needed and fill in any gaps. If you’re not already using social media, now’s the time to experiment with Twitter and Instagram, connect with existing and potential customers, and future-proof your business by creating a strong online presence that can flourish without the existence of a physical store.

Embrace the power of ecommerce

Some of the biggest retail giants are flourishing online at the moment, as isolated customers sit at home and make quick purchases to give themselves a boost. Smaller, independent retailers must take note if they’re to succeed in the long term, so make sure your website is primed and optimised to drive as many sales as possible.

READ MORE: Going digital during lockdown? Here’s what you need to know

Selling successfully online is all about trust, so make sure it’s clear to customers how they can contact you with any problems or questions. A physical address is vital, as people like to know where they can go to hold somebody accountable should something go wrong.

Outline delivery costs and speeds, and make your returns policy clear to avoid any customer service problems further down the line. Depending on your sector, an FAQs page can be really useful to allay customer concerns and reduce the number of queries you receive for commonly asked questions. For example, “how do I know where my diamond has come from?” or “what do I do if my ring doesn’t fit?”.

Imagery is also key. High quality images are proven to retain website users for longer and result in more page views, so make sure you have both high quality product images and some nice lifestyle imagery on your homepage and social channels to keep visitors engaged.

“Take the opportunity, now that your store is closed, to assess all of your digital assets”

For detailed products like jewellery, the option to view a product in 360 degrees is also a good idea. Customers want to feel like they know exactly what they’re getting, even if they haven’t yet seen or held the physical product. Bad images could turn a customer off instantly, so be very selective with the images you choose to use and ask for a few second opinions if necessary.

Finally, ensure your checkout flow is as frictionless as possible. Have you ever purchased something on Amazon so quickly that you’ve barely had time to think about it? This is exactly what you want for your ecommerce platform. Ensure there is as little friction as possible in your checkout process so that customers don’t have to spend ages answering questions, filling in reams of details and considering whether or not they really need to buy this item. A speedy checkout means a speedy sale, and a more profitable business.

Get creative with your content & add value where you can

There are so many great digital tools at our disposal, that retailers now have a huge opportunity to make themselves heard even while shops are closed. If you’re a small business your resources might be limited, but have confidence in your expertise and do what you can to add value for new and existing customers.

You could set up a live Q&A to answer customers’ questions about your sector, run polls to find out what your customers want to hear more about or what they’d love to see in store, or host a webinar on Instagram Live where you can talk about your particular area of expertise and help educate others who are in isolation.

You could set up a newsletter and encourage other independent retailers in your sector to guest write insightful articles on a range of topics. You could also experiment with online video consultations, clinics or video skills sessions. If you’re a small jewellery maker for example, could you run an online tutorial on how to mend or create certain pieces from home.

“Have confidence in your expertise and do what you can to add value for new and existing customers”

In recent years it has become increasingly common for business owners to promote themselves as the face of their business. If you’re not camera shy, engaging in conversations online and putting your face to your brand in innovative ways will help you develop a business that has longevity, stamina and an engaged customer base.

Consider new ways to diversify your offering

A good business strategy is a flexible one, so while your store is closed, now is the time to start thinking about how you can expand your services.

For example, if your business sells jewellery, consider introducing a mid-range collection to make your brand more accessible. If you’re in fashion retail, you could introduce a fashion swap shop or upcycling service to help shoppers be more sustainable. Now is the time to get your creative hat on and think about what else you can do, so you have ancillary revenue streams and flexibility in the face of another crisis.

Weathering the coronavirus crisis as an independent retailer is all about identifying ways in which you can reach and engage with customers, rather than waiting for customers to come to you. You may have to accept that sales will be difficult for a few weeks – but this doesn’t mean you can’t do anything at all to ensure your business comes out of this crisis fighting.

Take a step back and look at what you’ve got – from your website, social channels, stock, store, team and area of expertise. There’s room for innovation everywhere, and the real winners of this crisis will be those who can use it as an opportunity for growth, change and long-term future proofing.

Gary Williams is the Chairman of Hatton Garden BID and Director of Presman Mastermelt.

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