Shop local: turning community spirit into Christmas spirit

Love local signs in independent retailer
The increased interest in shopping locally was an unexpected silver lining from the pandemic.

It’s been a tough couple of years for independent retailers, with lockdowns and ongoing restrictions affecting both footfall and business dramatically.

Shop owners had to act quickly to stay relevant, with many of them pivoting to an online offering in order to stay afloat. Sadly, not all have survived, but those that did were able to enjoy a boost in customer loyalty as the pandemic shone a light on smaller businesses – particularly retailers – and encouraged us all to ‘shop local’.

Research for the British Independent Retailers Association (Bira) – conducted by Starling Bank – revealed clear evidence that the pandemic boosted customer loyalty to independent stores, with 72% of the independent retailers it surveyed reporting an increase in spend when lockdown first lifted, back in April 2021.

That success was seen right across the retail landscape, with 39% of independent retailers reporting more customers post-Covid than before and more than half (51%) saying their business has actually improved post-lockdown, when compared with pre-Covid levels.

At least part of this boost is down to good, old-fashioned community spirit. During a time when the nation was clapping for the NHS, a spotlight was also being shone upon other key workers, including those who worked in retail. A groundswell of positivity also saw consumers looking to support small businesses from their local community, especially those who had been unable to trade throughout the lockdowns.

Shop local promotion with lady in face mask handing over a bag

It’s little surprise then, that 61% of independent retailers have found the local community has been more supportive of their business following the pandemic, with just over half (54%) also crediting the strength and support of the community as being key to their post-lockdown success.

As we are faced with another significant wave of Covid cases – which currently looks set to continue well into 2022 – and footfall drops as consumers understandably shy away from the high streets, can independent retailers turn that well-earned community spirit into Christmas spirit?

Community spirit

Bira’s ceo, Andrew Goodacre, believes they can. He points out that throughout the various lockdowns and restrictions of 2020, essential business performed strongly, but it was of course a difficult time for all non-essential business – which includes much of retail.

“Retailers who adjusted their business model to meet consumer demand managed to hold on during that difficult period,” Goodacre explains. “And by adapting in various ways – whether that meant going online, offering home deliveries or changing their product focus – they have come through in a better position for the future.”

“The collective push to shop local was absolutely key for independent retailers”

An unexpected bonus from the pandemic was the increased interest in shopping locally, which saw independent retailers connecting with their local community in a way which had never been seen before.

“The collective push to shop local was absolutely key for independent retailers during the pandemic. It allowed them to connect with one another and drew consumers into the picture, helping them develop strong feelings towards their local retailers.”

With lockdowns (hopefully) now a thing of the past, Goodacre emphasises that shoppers need to understand the value of where they choose to shop and the impact that has on the local community. Research on spending by local authorities shows that for every £1 spent with a small or medium-sized business, 63p will then stay within the local economy.

“The post-lockdown level of local shopping is extremely encouraging,” Goodacre says, “but we need to make sure we can maintain that, particularly now and throughout the festive period.”

Hybrid retail

During the pandemic, Bira took a pro-active approach to ensuring that smaller independent retailers could make the most of the lockdown silver lining; helping them set up online trading platforms, offering social media training and any other help they may need.

“We wanted retailers to be able to create an omnichannel offering which gives shoppers the best possible user experience. There’s no reason that smaller retailers can’t offer the same service online as the big guys – a lot of the time it’s just a question of confidence.”

“It will take a while, but we need to make a proactive investment in hybrid retailing if we really want to help independent retailers thrive and prosper, both now and in the future,” he continues.

“Independent retailers are able to focus on offering a truly personal service”

Maintaining the impressive levels of consumer loyalty and maximising the community enthusiasm for shopping local is also front and centre of Bira’s focus, particularly over the key Christmas period.

“We need to ensure local businesses don’t get complacent or begin to take their foot off the pedal,” Goodacre says. “It’s important to continue engaging with consumers across social media and to keep that level of activity high.

“But at the same time, independent retailers must continue to provide the in-store personal touches they are known for. A number of fashion retailers are continuing to offer appointment slots for fittings – it’s become a really nice way for the consumer to feel special.”

In stark contrast to Amazon Fresh and the other automated stores which are popping up on our high streets with increasing frequency, retailers who offer a personal touch will be able to continue building on the goodwill and consumer loyalty they have established over the past 20 months.

“As larger stores are turning their focus towards tech and convenience, independent retailers are able to focus on offering a truly personal service,” he continues. “The services which bring people offline and instore are always going to be attractive to shoppers, whether they are permanent or seasonal.”

Shopper experience

William Coe is the managing director at menswear retailer Coes, which was founded in 1928 and now boasts six stores across the UK. Primarily a bricks and mortar operation (less than 10% of the business is online), Coes suffered badly during the lockdowns.

“It was bloody awful,” Coe says. “We were shut for 209 days in 2020. We hadn’t even shut for that long during the war!”

A significant proportion of Coes’ business relies on events and formalwear, so with consumers staying at home it was no real surprise when suit sales dropped by 75%.

“Our customers are extremely loyal, but they just had no reason to buy,” Coe continues. “Even when the lockdowns were over, footfall had dropped and people were nervous – it took a while for things to start to improve.”

man christmas shopping at a shop window

There’s a constant battle in terms of the pre-Christmas sales, seasonal discounts and other flash events that larger retail chains are able to offer. However, last Christmas Coes held its nerve and still saw those loyal customers returning for their festive finery, and Coe expects to see a similar pattern this year.

By focusing heavily on offering a bespoke shopper experience and promoting its brand heritage, Coes has been able to make the most of the run-up to the festive season this year.

“We absolutely saw people making an effort to shop local for Christmas last year,” he says. “And we’re expecting to see the same this year as more shoppers understand the importance of investing in their local community.”

According to Goodacre, none of us really know what’s in store as we move into 2022, although independent retailers are likely to have their work cut out with shoppers facing price rises, rising energy bills and inflation at a ten-year high.

“Despite all that, there’s so much to celebrate and admire from the past year,” he concludes. “By continuing to develop their offering and focusing on what sets them apart from the high street chains, independent retailers will be able to remain in a strong position for this Christmas and, crucially, through into next year.”

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