In conversation with Graham Soult, retail expert and consultant from CannyInsights.com, about Small Business Saturday (1 December)
In recent years, we’ve seen many big names disappear from our high streets. Brands like Woolworths and BHS are no more, and other established names like Debenhams, House of Fraser and M&S are closing branches across the UK.
This is forcing a reevaluation of our high streets, and one of the biggest trends at the moment is increasing the diversity and range of uses in town and city centres.
Large former department stores, for example, are often being repurposed for other uses – such as hotels, gyms, offices and housing – with retail and leisure uses only at the street level. New-build redevelopments are often adopting a similar mixed-use approach.
In many cases, the idea behind more diverse uses is to make better use of surplus former retail space, but it also works to bring people into our towns and city centres for purposes other than shopping – growing the catchment for new and existing high-street shops and services.
Of course, our high streets aren’t just dominated by big-name brands. Where I work in Chester-le-Street, for example, two thirds of the high-street businesses are independents (1), and that’s the case in a lot of small towns.
Many of today’s independent high-street businesses are being very clever about driving customers into their shops, using social media to develop a loyal following that translates into paying customers. People often talk about the Internet as a threat to the high street, but use it in the right way and it can be a great tool to generate awareness and interest, and drive footfall into a physical store.
Online can also be a good testing ground for businesses before they advance to a high-street store. It gives them a chance to build a customer base and demand for their products or services first. Having a presence on the high-street can also add credibility; people feel reassured that the company they’ve seen online is ‘real’, and based in their local area. Bricks-and-mortar shops help businesses build better relationships with customers too, because they can interact, have conversations, and understand better what their customers want.
Many of the independent businesses that are doing well are those that are offering distinctive and memorable experiences – such as exceptional personal service, regular instore events, or products that lend themselves to being touched, smelled or tasted. Many others, especially in areas like beauty, are selling something that simply can’t be purchased online.
Again, in Chester-le-Street, a popular new business in the town’s main shopping centre is an eyebrow threader. It’s helping to bring people into the town centre who previously had to travel to Washington or Durham, which in turn – in its own small way – is helping to support other nearby businesses and the wider local economy.
Small Business Saturday, which takes place this weekend – Saturday 1 December – is all about celebrating our high-streets and shopping local. So get out and explore what’s on your doorstep and help your local businesses thrive. If you make the effort to look beyond the negative headlines, you might well be surprised and delighted by the quality and range of what’s on offer.
By Graham Soult, retail expert and consultant
(1) A high-street audit by CannyInsights.com in May 2018 logged 182 trading retail premises in Chester-le-Street, of which 121 were independent businesses (66.4%).