Take a short walk down many high streets in Britain and the proliferation of charity shops, temporary vendors, and boarded-up windows will tell you just how tough times are for bricks and mortar retailers. This Christmas saw ever more shoppers migrating online, with a record one in five non-food items purchased in December bought via the internet. Meanwhile, the number of people shopping on the high street fell by 3.7 per cent, according to the British Retail Consortium (BRC).
But SME retailers shouldn’t be down-hearted because, believe it or not, small, independent shops are bucking this negative trend. Stores with fewer than 100 employees saw their sales in the festive period increase by more than eight per cent compared with the year before, Government figures show. Their larger rivals only experienced growth of 2.6 per cent.
They say that necessity is the mother of invention and, certainly, many small retail businesses have responded to the problems on the high street by innovating and embracing new technology. The BRC points out that many retailers are becoming multichannel in their approach, offering websites where customers can order goods, then pop into the physical shop for their purchase. Ironically, this ‘click and collect’ model that is driving consumers back into old-fashioned shops is becoming increasingly popular as the public becomes more au fait with internet shopping. No one can deny the convenience of scrolling through an endless array of goods via your laptop or smartphone, but realising that you have to wait several days for delivery – or more during busy periods like Christmas – suddenly makes the immediacy of going to a real shop seem quite attractive, especially if you know that your desired object is pre-ordered and waiting. Add to that the hassle of taking delivery of parcels when no-one’s at home, plus office post rooms increasingly banning personal mail, and buying online then collecting in person looks a sensible way to go.
Which brings us to another unexpected boost for smaller retailers from the growth of the internet. The rise of online retail behemoths such as Amazon has undoubtedly hurt small outlets and put many out of business. But these large internet retailers – and many bricks and mortar big names that also operate online – acknowledge that the last mile that online orders travel from the warehouse to their final destination is fraught with barriers and problems. So, many are signing up to CollectPlus, a service that allows shoppers to pick up their web purchases from a local shop. And the vast majority of the outlets registered with the programme are SMEs – CollectPlus estimates that it has more than 5,500 corner shops on its books. The company’s own past research suggests that more than a third of people who collect their online shopping from a local retailer have never visited that shop before, and about four in ten buy further items in-store while picking up or dropping off packages. Many shop owners report an increase in revenue as a result.
But many small retailers are coming up with more proactive ways of winning new custom and getting people into their stores. Small business owners have become savvy to the opportunities that social media and Twitter, in particular, provide. Twitter estimates that retail is one of things that most interests its users, and the company offers some tips on how small shop owners can promote their business in those 140 characters.
Listen to your competitors and potential customers on Twitter.
See what rival retailers say and what generates a material response before you start tweeting. Monitor what promotions people like and then decide if a similar approach could work for you. And search Twitter for any mentions of your business. Even if you’re not already active on the social media platform, people may be already talking about you. Respond to positive comments, and retweet endorsements.
Show your personality.
Twitter is supposed to be a conversation, so try not to be too formal in tone. If it seems relevant jump into Twitter chats about current events, local news, or things that are happening in your industry. If you sell items that are photogenic, then post pictures – tweets with images are twice as popular as those without. Reference popular hashtags to reach more people, for example, the recent Small Business Saturday event resulted in #SmallBizSatUK trending in the number one slot on Twitter.
Though Twitter is a real-time medium, drawing up a calendar of content will make the process of posting messages easier and less time-consuming in the longer term. Schedule in regular promotions, consider when it may be interesting to share information about what’s happening in the business, or tie messages to more general events in the diary, such as Mother’s Day or school half term.
But really advanced businesses are going even further. Aware that many individuals consider their smartphone as vital a piece of kit as their wallet and keys, some cutting-edge retailers are encouraging people to use their handsets in-store to interact with stock and spend more money. Small wireless sensors, specifically low-energy Bluetooth beacons, can be placed around a shop to allow retailers to transmit special offers to customers via their phones as they browse around the store. These developments can also allow for payments via mobile phones without the need to queue at checkouts. Firms such as UK start-up Powa are pioneering this technology and insist it isn’t just for the big players, but can be within the budget of small firms, too. Some predict that this could be the way to reconcile the differences of so-called clicks and bricks shopping.
We shall see. But while small retailers still face huge challenges – expensive business rates, growing vacancies on the high street that can drag down neighbouring firms, more consumers logging on rather than going out to shop – they are fighting back, and technology is one of their most valuable weapons. If you’re one of the third of UK SMEs without a website, get an online presence now to compliment your physical business. Think about how social media might attract people to your store in person. And don’t forget old-fashioned approaches, such as arranging an event in your street with nearby businesses or setting up a pop-up market to generate more footfall. On the whole, consumer confidence is improving, and more people want to spend money. You just need to persuade them to spend it with you.
Image courtesy of renjith krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net