Shop Local: how getting online helped independent businesses survive lockdown
- Credit: Archant
Online shopping was once eyed as the weapon which could wound our high streets as opposed to one that could be wielded in its favour.
But when bricks and mortar stores were forced to close suddenly having an online offering was more vital than ever.
The trend of online shopping is well documented. According to the ONS, since 2006 the percentage of total retail sales as a portion of online has jumped from 2.8% to 26.1% in 2020.
And that is down from its peak during lockdown, when online shopping attributed for just shy of 33% of sales made in the UK.
But according to data collected from more than 250 businesses by this newspaper, 40% of East Anglian independents have no online presence whatsoever – be it Facebook, TripAdvisor, or a website.
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And in an ever web-based world can our indies really hope to survive without a digital footprint?
Professor Ratula Chakraborty is a business management specialist based at the University of East Anglia, and said: “The prospect of lockdowns and many consumers shielding in the run up to Christmas mean that it is vital for retailers to have an online presence to maximise their sales.
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“Shoppers will want to shy away from the usual hordes descending on shopping malls and high streets and instead shop online from the safety of their homes.
“Independent retailers will miss out on the Christmas bonanza if they do not have an online presence and if they cannot reach out to their customer base.
“These small retailers could really struggle if they do not have good customer mailing lists, a platform presence through eBay or Amazon Marketplace, or prepared to spend a lot on marketing to boost their online presence.”
Some businesses already experienced an online boom during lockdown earlier this year.
Better on Vinyl is a second-hand record store in Framlingham. Owner Chris Edgcombe has run an online store for ten of the 15 years that he has sold records.
Now he does most of his business through the website.
“I set up the website about ten years ago,” he said. “It’s still growing. But it can only grow when I’ve got the time to actually put things online. I’ve got approximately 26,000 records online now but it’s taken the best part of ten years because I’m only managing to get about 200 records a month online.
“I’m kind of a bit hampered by how long it takes to actually get round to listing stuff. It’s a long process. And I’m not quite busy enough to employ someone full-time to run the shop.”
Despite the slow process of establishing his online presence, during lockdown, Mr Edgcombe saw sales through his website skyrocket. He said: “Since March my online sales have doubled and stayed there.
“In August it was like Christmas sales online and now it’s just remaining at double the volume it used to be.”
For other businesses pivoting to online meant slightly adapting their offering, but it has allowed them to stay afloat during lockdown.
Adam Button, head of sales at Calvors brewery, said they had moved from mainly supplying the pub trade pre-lockdown to selling canned beer online direct to the consumer during lockdown.
“At the beginning of the year, and for most of the history of the business, we have probably been 90% pub trade,” he said. “Obviously with the onset of lockdown that business went overnight.”
To supply the pub trade beer needs to be put into kegs and cask, whereas consumers buy most of their beer in bottles and cans.
Mr Button said: “We just put all of our efforts – in production and sales – into making the most of farm shops and the off-trade sales that we had and supporting them as best we could.
“We also tried to pick up new off-trade and online routes to market which, thankfully, we managed to do.
“Sale increased massively via our website when lockdown hit. People were buying direct from the brewery.
“That helped enormously – if we didn’t have the canning line and the off-trade we quite possibly wouldn’t be here as a brewery.”