It was Napoleon who reportedly intended to insult the British by calling them a nation of shopkeepers. Napoleon got his comeuppance in the end but now Britain’s shopkeepers face a struggle of their own.
Independent retailers across the UK came through their own Battle of Trafalgar during the spring and summer of 2020, only now to face the Waterloo of a second lockdown during what is usually their busiest period. Their most powerful opponent’s war chest – a swelling incoming tide of online shopping – had already threatened to submerge them this year, with Amazon enjoying its best-ever quarter during lockdown, seeing its profits double to hit their highest level on record.
The slow shift to online shopping has been accelerated by Covid-19. Non- food sales used to be only 20 per cent of total online retail sales, but in July the figure was as high as 50 per cent.
Andrew Goodacre, chief executive of the British Independent Retailers Association, says: “That’s a significant shift in terms of where people are shopping, and that’s not going to change.”
Bricks-and-mortar retailers may have hoped for a reprieve and briefly come up for air at the chance of rescuing the year during the run-up to Christmas, the most important period for small shops.
However, the announcement of the second lockdown, forcing them to shut up shop until Dec 3, has left many with stock they will struggle to sell. Yet many small retailers are determined to rise to the challenge.
Walking along his local high street in Kenilworth, Goodacre was heartened to see shops with notices in the window advising customers that while they were closed, they were still open online and would deliver locally.
“They’re basically saying ‘don’t forget us’, and trying to be as creative as they can. For some that will work,” Goodacre says. “Others, who have waited too long to get into the internet opportunity, are going to be the ones who are caught out.”
The dictum to “shop local” has never been more important. Where and how you shop in the run-up to Christmas will influence what your local high street looks like in the future. A thriving nation of shopkeepers relies on those who use it.
As Goodacre says, it is about the local economy. “If you spend a pound in your local economy it circulates in that. You spend a pound with Amazon and it could be anywhere.”
Not that he’s anti-Amazon, although he admits with a chuckle that his daughter apologised for using it the other day. “Some things, you have to go to them for,” he admits. “They make it so easy and that is their skill. Credit where credit is due.”
Part of the problem, Goodacre says, is that most consumers search online by product rather than store or shop, which means the behemoth Amazon will always come out top, thanks to Search Engine Optimisation.
If you want to support local businesses online, he suggests trying to search instead by shop.
“Seventy-eight per cent of independents have a website. So you can find out what’s available. You don’t have to go with the first thing you see on Google, which will invariably be Amazon.”
It can be a challenge for small shops to connect with their customers online. However, Google’s campaign to urge consumers to leave reviews is an opportunity to help push your favourite bookstore, hardware shop or café up the rankings. Meanwhile, retailers can harness social media to tell their customers what services they are offering during lockdown. At the start of the second lockdown Holly Drew, owner of Darling and Gold, a clothes and homewares boutique on Hackney’s hip Chatsworth Road, sent customers on her mailing list a newsletter telling them politely, but firmly, that unless they showed their support she couldn’t guarantee she would still be around next year.
“While I’m sympathetic to the fact that people have lost their jobs, I’m running a business in an area where houses cost over £900,000, and one of the reasons they’re worth that is because it’s a nice place to live with a lovely street of independent shops.”