Tackling four challenges facing indie retailers

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Opening signs and digital thermometer sit on the counter at Smokey Joe's Cafe, Scorrier, on May 17, 2021 in Falmouth, England. (Photo by Hugh Hastings/Getty Images)

There’s no doubt that the past 18 months have been challenging for all retailers and continue to be. While the high streets are recovering slowly, small retailers face some big challenges with the switch to online shopping and an increasingly crowded marketplace, says Gabriella Peace, Communications Manager of UK Greetings, one of the largest direct to retail publishers of greeting cards and social expression products in the UK.

Competing with online

The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have generated the biggest shift to online shopping we’ve ever seen. This is set to be an ongoing issue, with half of global consumers intending to continue shopping online more frequently post-pandemic, Peace notes.

“Research has shown that fewer than two-thirds of small businesses have a website, while up to 80 per cent of consumers research a company online before visiting or buying. This presents a significant challenge for smaller retailers that don’t have the resources to maintain a website,” she says.

Photo: iStock

During the pandemic, online marketplaces have soared in profitability, and a lot of this profit has come from independent retailers using the platform to sell their products. Peace says Amazon is now a viable option for small retailers to offer their products to a wider audience.

“With prices starting at only £25 a month, it’s a tempting option for small shops that can’t afford the upfront and ongoing costs of a dedicated website. You will, of course, need to supplement that with some marketing in order to stand out in the crowd,” she adds.

Effective marketing tactics on a budget

Marketing your business, especially to a wide audience, can still be costly. For years, TV dominated advertising, while independent retailers used more traditional tactics. Now, online marketing is king, whether that’s organic search engine optimisation (SEO), paid search, or social media advertising.

“Small retailers who have a dedicated website may be able to benefit from SEO and paid search advertising, but what about those who don’t? The answer may lie in social media marketing,” Peace says. “If people are already familiar with your brand name locally but you don’t have a website, having a presence on social media is a great way to take up some search engine real estate when people google your business.”

She suggests to post regularly on social media – whether that’s new products, promotions, or activities – so as to keep your business front of mind. And, it’s important to make it shareable to get your followers to promote your content.

Photo: iStock

“For example, a card supplier with cheeky or relatable slogans has a product that people will want to photograph and post or share from your page. Equally, a candle shop with stunning packaging could inspire some unboxing videos,” she explains.

Setting up a Google My Business account is also essential to reach the people who may search your business online. This will show your store’s location, opening times, and reviews and a great way to drive footfall to your business without the need for a dedicated website, she adds.

Covid-19 isolation still poses staffing problems

As more of us are double-vaccinated, fewer people will be required to isolate if they’ve come into contact with a Covid-positive person. Isolation could still pose a problem in your business though.

“In the past few months, one positive case could have shut down your business. Now, this isn’t the case, but we can’t become complacent – especially as you’re likely to have a low employee count. One ten-day absence could still negatively impact your business,” she notes.

Continuing to enforce strict hygiene rules in the shop will help prevent the spread of Covid-19 and limit the chances of one of your employees – as well as your customers – catching it in your store.

Empty high streets

Many well-established retailers have closed some of their high-street branches during the pandemic. According to 2021 research from PwC, over 17,500 branches of chain stores closed as a result of the pandemic. A further study from LDC showed that significantly fewer independent stores closed for good.

A general view of Hampstead High Street on February 28, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images)

“The closure of many local shop branches is likely to bring both opportunity and challenges to independent retailers. With more properties available in key locations, smaller retailers have the chance to move to a more lucrative location. However, unless enough of these properties are occupied, lower footfall may impact profitability,” Peace says.

Retail property rents have dropped significantly since the beginning of 2020, presenting a unique opportunity for small retailers. “However, as high streets recover, caution must be taken when opting for a swanky new location. As more vacant stores are occupied and people return to the high street, rents may increase again to an unsustainable level,” she concludes with a note of caution.