Are we set to enter a new "age of independents"?
When a mighty oak falls the sunlight blazes in. The resulting glade sees green shoots appear with all manner of species stimulated to grow and compete for this finite opportunity.
A metaphor for business, the British high-street has seen many old oaks fall over and die recently, and, with optimism, the light that this allows to shine into the market could make it a boom time for new independents to open.
With people shopping more locally, wanting the opposite of chain stores and craving something different, it is predicted that we will see a flood of independent brands and stores grasping to fill this void.
Andrew Goodacre, CEO of Bira (British Independent Retailers Association) believes so. “It is a fact that people who have lost jobs often look to start their own businesses,” he says.
It is worth noting how much better the leaner, and more flexible independent businesses weathered the pandemic. Recent research from the Local Data Company, the UK's most accurate retail location data company, confirmed there were 31,405 openings of independent units in 2020. Though openings were outweighed by 32,847 closures and resulted in the independent market shrinking by -0.4% (-1,442 units), it compares much more favourably to the chain market which declined by -4.5%, almost 10,000 units.
“We have also seen a resurgence in people shopping locally and there has been a significant increase in service retailing – barbers, hairdressers, cafes, etc,” says Goodacre.
“Indies have a personality and connection with their local communities that cannot be matched by the large chains. This is a good time because more people are shopping locally and care more about their local economy.
“Shopping locally, away from the large city centres, has happened throughout the UK, including London, as the boroughs have prospered at the expense of those shops in the centre or near high volume commuter stations,” Goodacre adds.
Olly Rzysko, Founder of Good Candles, recently charted the arrival of numerous new independent retailers in the seaside town of Broadstairs through his Twitter channel @ollyrzysko: “I saw a lot of new units opening up, stores that were previously closed or maybe very tired reinventing themselves,” he says.
“Some of what had been previously pretty dead spots of high street were coming alive with new spaces from Affinity Brewery, a new lifestyle store and one of the most successful stores upgrading to a bigger unit. There were at least 6 new stores and several new places to eat and drink in a tiny town,” Rzysko adds.
He has a theory as to why so many independents are opening in the town at the moment, and it echoes Goodacre’s sentiments. “I think it’s a mix of relatively affordably retail property, a mindset from people that they want local stores and a growing population by the coast that are willing to spend money here,” he says.
“E-commerce is amazing if you have a unique product or a specific proposition but a real store can be so versatile and be a hub for the community and the brand.
“Independents can offer some choice, curated choice. I love Selfridges and their curation of product, but I can’t go every week. Having some stores locally that can bring together interesting products and, in some cases, more local ones is really powerful. We’ve had a year of ’buy local’ messaging and I do think people really do want to spend more near to home,” he says.
“A lot of people are going back to offices this year but for many of us that will probably be three days a week. That has some significant impact. City centres lose 20% of footfall for every day we work from home, this traffic is now local to where the workers live. They still want to buy lunch or a birthday card or a bottle of wine, but the money will be spent nearer to home.
“It is much easier to change tactics when you’re one store in a small town, much harder when you have shareholders and growth targets,” Rzysko says.
To kick start retail after lockdown many within the retail industry, including campaign group Save the Street, were calling for a “Shop Out to Help Out” scheme, urging the government to support the sector by offering customers 50% off the cost of goods at independent retailers up to a maximum price of £10. Positively, since then retail sales volumes grew sharply in April 2021 with a monthly increase of 9.2%, reflecting the effect of the easing of coronavirus restrictions according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics. Non-food stores provided the largest contribution to the monthly growth in April 2021 sales volumes, aided by strong increases of 69.4% and 25.3% in clothing stores and other non-food stores respectively.
Masato Jones is an independent fashion designer who has recently opened his first store in Leeds. Originally from Japan, he studied at Central St. Martins and started his eponymous label in 2012. He was based in London.
“London is so expensive, and doing bespoke I need to be somewhere in a city,” he says. “London has become slightly too commercial and I found Leeds has a very individual style. I saw young people wearing quite a unique style.
“It seems the north like my style, the south is very quiet, my first impression was go north. We looked at Manchester and Liverpool, but I like what is going on in Leeds,” he says.
Selling men’s and womenswear, the newly opened store is in Thornton Arcade, just around the corner from Louis Vuitton in the centre of Leeds. It has an atelier on the first floor, open for pattern cutting and garment making classes, all tutored by Jones. Speaking before the move, he said: “It is very difficult to survive here in London right now, especially for a small business. The Leeds arcade has all independent shops apart from Starbucks, and we will stock artists’ work as well.”
Independents' Day is the national campaign to celebrate and promote the UK's independent retailers on 4 July, started out as a small idea in the North of England and has grown into a multi-award-winning worldwide movement. Independents' Day UK is a not-for-profit campaign that exists to support and promote independent retail businesses across the UK all year round, but with an annual focus on 4 July. On 4 July retailers get involved by running special events and promotions including themed window displays, high street festivities, discounts and offers. There is now a network of “Totally Locally Towns” across the world, sharing ideas, working together and making a difference to their independent businesses.
Further north, the City of Durham Parish Council has launched “Indie Durham City”. Managed by Gateshead-based retail consultants CannyInsights.com, it has been running since May 2020 to support and promote independent shops, cafes, restaurants, bars and other businesses in Durham’s historic city centre.
Graham Soult, Retail Consultant at Canny Insights says: “Indie Durham City was created in response to the pandemic to support and promote independent businesses. I’m helping make them more digital, update their Google listings, Facebook etc, all with free support from me.”
By helping them digitally it has increased awareness of the physical place to draw shoppers in. “Initially they were really cautious about using those channels, but they are embracing them a lot more, all sharing updates in a given location which makes it a destination place,” he says.
The city social media has amplified the message. “Facebook, Instagram, Twitter are really important in providing footfall, people will check you out beforehand. You get that verification, the retailers are telling me they came in today and said they saw me on Facebook,” he says.
“There has been a flurry of independents,” says Soult. “We saw this before Christmas when five new independents opened in that period, and there’s another four new independents in a 200 metres stretch in the city. There’s clearly an appetite,” he says.
“The smaller towns that already have an independent cohort already, those places are proving quite robust with people living close by,” says Soult.
"It’s the in-between towns, they aren’t top tier, nor small market towns, places like Warrington and Middlesbrough, who have the biggest reinvention ahead of them,” he says. “Get all the key stakeholders, like the council and landlords all working together, and the places doing that have that energy all pushing in the right direction.”
People are seeing more independents because they are spending more time in their locales. There’s also not as much pull from the city or shopping centres with the widespread and much publicised bankruptcies of huge retail chains. There’s something quite sad about city centres right now with empty shops and boarded up retail units.
It’s currently cooler and more original shopping local and doing business directly with the owner. There’s also a need and desire to tap into their knowledge and expertise and have a human connection.
These independent businesses still need online and social media to drive people to their physical stores, and it works better collectively. It’s very much stronger together. But they need to do more than simply exist. They are competing for the pounds in people’s pockets, and while they probably won’t be able to match online on price, they can compete on originality, convenience, service and, most importantly of all, that personal touch.