Independent retailers need to take ownership to ensure their survival – not just blame Covid, Amazon and government

February 2021

Although I have and continue to work in a very diverse range of business sectors and specific industries, if I had to pick a favourite it would be retail. This passion unquestionably stems from my early career, with my very first job over 45 years ago (essentially in-store marketing) in a department store in south London.

Much of my consultancy work is still retail related, albeit increasingly online. There is a technical difference between online retail and ecommerce, but frankly the lines are blurred and, in any event, it’s not something that bothers the consumer.

What I want to focus on here though, is small independent traditional bricks and mortar retailers which are, or have the potential to, also sell online in one form or another. This anyway wouldn’t necessarily result in a pure ecommerce transaction and home delivery, because there are other models which may well suit the consumer – e.g. click and collect.

We’re all aware of course of how high street and even out-of-town retail has declined in recent years as more consumers switch to online, with the pandemic now accelerating that trend. Many large national operators have suffered enormously, and I was especially sad to see Debenhams go down, as part of my early career was working for them.

Unlike those retail giants, small independents actually have an opportunity in our brave new world. This is partly because small size allows for quick changes which aren’t going to break the bank, but also because the ‘shop local’ message is clearly resonating with consumers – something that is likely to continue post-pandemic.

My frustration in all this, is that I see and hear too many independent retailers moan about a decline in business, and at the same time choose to blame Covid, online giants like Amazon, and of course Westminster and, where I live in Scotland, Holyrood as well. Some clearly do recognise the need for change, but even here they often want that change to be on their terms rather than something that really benefits their customers.

I’ve always bought into the whole shop local thing, but since moving to the Highlands 12 years ago it’s taken on a different level of importance. The simple reasons being that ecommerce can be expensive due to inflated delivery charges, plus if you don’t take local as a shopping option then the only city (Inverness) is a relatively long drive away. To illustrate the good and bad in all-thing shopping local and in the context of retailers which have and haven’t adapted, here are two stories from the last few months . . .

With lockdown in place, I looked to how I could buy some young trees (I have a small nature reserve) and some vegetable seeds (I also have a poly tunnel) from my local garden centre who I’ve long shopped with. I contacted them by message on their Facebook page and asked if they’d be able to deliver to me, they said no but would be launching a click and collect service. I didn’t think that was a great option in the lockdown, as a) it was clearly flouting the rules, and b) should you really be asking customers (many of which will be retired) to put themselves at risk by leaving home – not least in freezing temperatures.  But anyway I waited for the scheme to launch (I assumed they were putting in place payment options on their website) and then when it did go live went to their website to order. However, what you and I might expect from ‘click and collect’ – i.e. click on the items, pay for them, then go and pick them up – was not exactly what this retailer had in mind. No, their method was go to our website and have a look at some of our products (some had prices others didn’t), email us with what you want and give us your phone number, we’ll then phone you at our convenience, tell you if we have it, how much it will cost, you then pay us over the phone, we then agree when you can come and pick it up.

Needless to say I didn’t take up their offer, but having searched online to buy what I needed an ad popped up on my Facebook newsfeed from a garden centre nearly 500 miles away in middle England. So I asked them if I could order online, pay online and then they post the goods out to me, and back they came with ‘yes you can and postage is free if your order is over £10’. So that was a simple decision.

What makes the story even worse is that when I told my local garden centre I’d have to order online from elsewhere (I felt I should tell them and largely out of loyalty), they simply weren’t bothered. This sort of stance is not only ignorant but about as un-customer focused as you can get, and suffice it to say I won’t be returning to them in any big way in a post-pandemic world.

Now for the good news story: Just before Christmas I messaged my local farm shop In Beauly and asked if they had any venison fillet in stock (as you do). They messaged straight back to say they didn’t, but I anyway went there to buy other food items for Christmas. It’s a lovely shop and very well organised, with other shopping options being to order and pay online and then select either delivery or click and collect. What they’ve done in a relatively short period of time is go from being a very traditional retailer to entirely adapting to a change in circumstances and in a way that is totally customer-focused. And here’s a real measure of just how customer-focused the business owner is – a lovely lady called Karen: A few weeks back she messaged me on Facebook to say that she’d just had a delivery in of venison fillet, hoped I was well and thought she’d let me know etc. So more than six weeks on from my enquiry, she’d remembered and actually taken the trouble to contact me (and in truth probably wouldn’t know me from Adam – but that doesn’t matter a jot).

My local farm shop is a business that will continue to be successful, and not least because of the changes the owner has made as a result of the pandemic and in recognition of an anyway changing market. The garden centre will be less successful and perhaps to the point it won’t survive. I’d also put money on it that Karen doesn’t moan and put blame on others before implementing customer-focused change, whereas the garden centre owner will blame others and then grudgingly makes changes which are only convenient to them.

The key takeaway here? Be like Karen.

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