Our brains are wired to seek stability and avoid the unknown. So when uncertainty surfaces, the instinctive reaction is to batten down the hatches, bolt the doors and wait for the storm to ride itself out.
Certainty in uncertainty
Right now, you could be forgiven for thinking the only thing for certain regarding the UK landscape is uncertainty. The dust may have settled a little on Brexit, but the fundamental questions remain unanswered.
The British Retail Consortium reports a 2.8% fall in footfall in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote whilst recent polls suggest UK consumer confidence has taken its biggest drop since 1990. However, from an economic standpoint, we’re unlikely to know what the long-term impact of the Brexit vote will be for quite some time.
Navigating a course
Against this background, business investment is slowing. Of the small business owners and independent retailers I talk to, many say they’re unsure of the correct approach to take in this sort of situation. Should they continue as normal, or should they scale back their ambitions until the storm rides out?
My advice to them is simple. Write down all the things that were keeping you awake before the Brexit vote. Ask yourself whether any of those concerns have gone away since the outcome of the vote became known? If the answer is ‘no’ then addressing those concerns is likely to be the best way to safeguard any emerging challenges ahead.
Putting the customer first
Before Brexit became the only game in town, small and independent retailers were worried about how to address the impact of technology on consumer shopping habits. Driven by technology, the high street is undergoing the biggest shake-up in a century, with many traditional businesses racing to catch up.
Brexit or not, high street businesses need to evolve to attract consumers who crave a more friction free experience. As purse strings tighten, and people become more discerning with their purchases, they will gravitate towards retailers that offer the type of experience they are looking for.
Rather than standing still, now is the time for small and independent retailers to look at how technology can help them become more efficient in how they operate, and more appealing to the customers they want to reach.
Smaller businesses may find it difficult to compete with their larger rivals in terms of price or range, but people recognise and value the personalised experience they get from dealing with an independent retailer. So any small retailer looking to safeguard their future needs to be channelling their resources into getting technology and processes in place that help them play to these strengths.
Earlier this year, I became involved in Worldpay’s High Street to iStreet campaign, a nationwide initiative aimed at helping small and independent retailers understand how technology can help them improve and grow their businesses. Working directly with a number of business owners, some of the key things we’ve focused on are:
- Know your customers: The best way to get to know what your customer wants is to ask them. Customers want you to be interested in them and they’ll be flattered that you value their opinions. To supplement this direct feedback, get a handle on any customer transaction data you’re processing and put it to use to help planning and decision making. Being able to spot trends in customer spending patterns can help with everything from stock and promotions, through to resourcing.
- Build your networks: Social media has been one of the great levellers for small and independent retailers. In return for just an hour a day of interacting with customers, you can build the type of genuinely engaged community that bigger retailers would spend years trying to create. Work on building your connections on social, not just with customers, but with other small businesses in your area. Build a forum or Facebook group for like-minded individuals and local shop owners. Create a sense of community online, that people will want to engage with offline.
- Get organised: Keep a diary for a week and note down how you spend your time each day. At the end of the week, have a look back at all the time you have spent on paperwork. Apparently the average small business owner spends about a day a week on admin. That’s all time you could be spending with customers. Do some research online and see if there’s some technology out there that could help you automate or speed up any admin processes.
- Make it easy to find you: Take a look around you on the high street and you’ll see people glued to their smartphones. Whether they’re checking out deals, searching for a place to eat, or simply in search of inspiration, if you don’t have a website then you might as well not exist. Services like Web.com and etsy.com have made it easy to build an online shop-window from which you can market and sell to customers well beyond the traditional confines of your high street.
- Make it easy to buy from you: If you want me to spend money with you, then don’t put barriers in front of me when it comes to paying. At the very minimum that means having a range of payment options in-store, including contactless if your customers are likely to be in a hurry. Similarly, I might really want to shop with you, but for some reason I can’t get to you. Having an ecommerce site that I can buy from will make me more likely to remain loyal to you, even when I’m not nearby.
Weathering a storm is all about having solid foundations. Small business owners now have access to tools and services that can do for the sole trader and SME what a larger enterprise used to spend a fortune on with a team of consultants and tech experts. Of all the challenges that small and independent retailers face, digital disruption is the area that they have the most potential to be able to shape their own destinies and safeguard their futures.
Tim Campbell is the founder of young entrepreneurs' charity Bright Ideas Trust and a former winner of The Apprentice.