How has COVID-19 changed the game for small businesses?

With lockdowns becoming the new normal, small and independent businesses are coming and going like the tide, but what long-term effect is this having on the ones that remain? Fashion North’s Megan Hagel investigates.

The UK has been put under national lockdown three times since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, each time forcing non-essential retailers to close their doors and take their sales online. With small and independent retailers often falling under the radar with the attention and media being focused on the struggles of industry giants such as Topshop and Debenhams, we are left to wonder how independent businesses were expected to survive when the pandemic was forcing many to shut their doors for good.

Sunderland City Centre on first week of non-essential retailers opening

Figures produced by the Office for National Statistics showed of all retail spending, online sales broke records by soaring 33.9% in 2020. With bricks and mortar stores closed and retailers only hope becoming successful online sales throughout lockdowns, what did independent retailers have to do to survive in an era that has seen online shopping surge and traditional high street stores suffer. Would it even be possible for them to survive at all without an online presence?

Kris Kennedy, the head of studio at END. clothing said: “It was absolutely critical for END. We have both physical, bricks and mortar stores in the UK, Glasgow, London and Newcastle, where we started out and our digital channels via endclothing.com, working alongside a huge social media community. Having our website and social networks meant that we could keep trading through the various lockdowns and stay in close contact with our customers.”

END. website homepage. Image credit: END.

“I would encourage any business to have an online presence, regardless of everything that’s happened with COVID. Obviously, the world has been moving that way for quite some time. Digital allows businesses the freedom and independence to maintain direct access to their customers and build on a two-way, instant relationship,” said Kris. “In essence, our physical stores aren’t going anywhere, and I think the future is both digital and physical channels working together seamlessly, and thoughtfully.”

But with stores being forced to remain closed throughout the national lockdowns the Office for National Statistics showed that total retail sale volumes fell by 1.9% in 2020 compared with 2019, which was the largest annual fall on record. For independent stores, who have no website, making sufficient revenue to survive was going to prove difficult.

Nelson Blackley, an independent retail analyst said: “If we look at ‘non-essential’ retail, it’s clear that those who have ‘bricks and mortar’ stores only and no online sales presence have struggled. Even retail giants such as Primark confirmed in early 2021 that lockdown store closures could cost it more than £1bn in lost sales. In contrast, online only fashion retailers such as ASOS and Boohoo saw their sales rise by around 40% in the last four months of 2020. Whether a small or large retail business, the key is knowing who your customers are, where they are and where and when they want to shop and then providing them with a seamless and friction-free experience.”

Corner 93, a small independent vintage store in Sunderland was one of the few independent stores going into lockdown without a website to support it.

Lyndsey Jackson, owner of Corner 93 said: “I probably am going to get a website in the future but the problem we had with selling online during lockdown was the fact that we purchase our stock from the public, so we didn’t have any suppliers during lockdown. I usually do house calls, so people didn’t really want me to be at their houses and legally you couldn’t. So, we didn’t really have a system to be able to get hold of people’s things to sell it for them. Going forward we are going to look at getting more volumes of stock through, as it safeguards the business. Although we have this really strong market now online, it’s also lovely to come into store and be tactile, to touch things and try things on and have a natter. I think we took lockdown as a break and a breather to think about how we wanted to move forward when we reopened and to see how it was going to be when we did re-open. It was more just looking at it and thinking what we could have done differently and learning from our mistakes.”

With much of the high street lost throughout the turbulence of COVID-19, independent businesses are what make each high street unique and for those that have survived this is the most important period. With the third lockdown finally beginning to ease, independent businesses have been in a rush to prepare themselves for welcoming back their customers. It is now all about earning back the revenue that has been lost and turning online sales back into in-store buying.

Andrew McKenzie, the owner of Aphrodite, an independent designer menswear store in Sunderland said: “Prior to this week we’ve been putting teasers out there on social media saying, ‘coming back soon’ and making people aware because there are certain businesses that haven’t opened up, but we were always going to open the first day we could. This week we’ve had a team photograph outside the store with the staff that were working on the Monday and that got a good reaction on social media. We’re also doing staff picks during the week with a different member of staff with a product getting pushed out there. It’s all about engaging with the audience.

Aphrodite staff and owner, Andrew McKenzie (left) on the day of re-opening. Image credit: Aphrodite

“It’s a solid business, especially with us trading for over 26 years now. I think it’s surprising when you are standing on the shop floor how many people come from outside of the area and a lot of that is down to the advertisement from the website or social media,” said Andrew McKenzie. “We have a good clientele that have shopped between the shop floor and the website and a lot of loyal customers. That’s the whole thing with building an independent business, you have to get to know your customers and I’d like to think we know ours.”

With businesses starting to re-open, it is now time to support small and independent businesses more than ever and bring the high street back to life.

Who are your favourite independent businesses? Let us know by tweeting us @Fashion_North!

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