Non essential bricks and mortar shops are reopening on Monday after months of being closed - but if feels as though they’ll be opening their doors to a much changed retail landscape. So many high street names have gone permanently. It’s so sad to see household names like Debenhams go, but in a way, for many of these retailers it isn’t a huge surprise. Some of these businesses have been slow to realise that it isn’t just about making cold hard cash, it’s about putting the customer first and in the front when they make decisions about how their business evolves and behaves. Shopping nowadays is about adapting to change, realising what people want - it’s about conscience , responsibility, being fresh and innovative.
Covid has forced retail to change or die. Old established retailers going bust makes us all sad because we have a connection built through years of tradition. I still think the most shocking closure in recent years was seeing Woolworths go, and I still miss it!
|My local Woolies in Dereham before it closed|
I think many of us still feel a bit nervous about going back to shopping on the high street - we’ve spent a year training ourselves to stay safe, be precautious and careful, and I think a lot of us will be feeling naturally reticent about wandering around shops like we used to. Plus, of course, we’re still going to be wearing face masks and social distancing, and that makes the thought of browsing casually around shops still feel pretty impossible and gloomy for the time being.
As a small business owner, it’s hard to feel confident when you see huge, established retailers struggling to survive. It takes nerves of steel not to run for the hills sometimes! But it’s important to remind yourself that being successful isn’t just about the big numbers: lots of shops, big profit margins, a huge staff. Now, more than ever, it’s about putting the customer first, thinking about what they need and like, helping them, and being responsible when it comes to the planet.
I’ve seen a complete shift over the 12 years since I started PhotoFairytales - we’re all so much more mindful about what we bring into our lives. Buying conscientiously rather than impulsively, being deliberate in our choices. What we buy is a commitment. It’s about buying things we love from retailers we care about, rather than just ‘stuff’ (for want of a better word!). With so many people losing their jobs and having to watch what they spend over the last year, this is more important than it ever was.
I believe that customers now don’t buy ‘from’, they buy ‘into’. We’ve all done it: buying from Shop A because it makes us feel good (better service, nicer shop, better buying experience, more ‘quality’ feeling…). Sometimes it isn’t all about cost, even in times of austerity. It’s more complex than that now. Customers are far more aware of how a business conducts itself, how in touch with it’s customers it is, with changing styles and trends, with the care and attention it puts into earning your custom.
In theory, it should be much easier for a bricks and mortar shop to be able to look after it’s customers: after all, it sees them face to face. But all too often that’s not the case. My very first job was working on the shop floor of Laura Ashley. We were told that when a customer pays using their credit card we should surreptitiously read the name on the card, and then say “thank you Mrs X” as we passed it back to them. Call me a rebel (and I did get told off more than once), but I NEVER did that - apart from the fact that it felt weird and a bit stalker-ish, it wasn’t remotely natural! It felt fake. And despite it trying to make it feel more personal for the customer I thought then (and still do) that it made it more impersonal. Was I right? What would you feel if a member of sales staff did that with your card?!
|Laura Ashley in Norwich... as was|
Face to face retailers don’t have the monopoly when it comes to looking after customers. That’s because it’s not all about the transaction, it’s about service, care, aftercare, advice, expert knowledge, giving people time, being approachable and helpful, letting people know you’re there if they need you (and making sure you get back to them in a timely fashion when they do!). Excellent service can be replicated online - and it’s your right to expect it!
I suppose essentially what I’m saying is that every pound spent is a vote - and we should all vote wisely! Imagine for a minute if every retailer only had 4 years, like a government. After 4 years they only get to stay open if customers vote for them. And in a way, that’s basically what we’ve all been doing: voting, with our hard earned cash! So, here’s my bit of ‘electioneering’!:
- My manifesto is: Better gifts, better experience - to make shopping enjoyable and friendly. Customers are my community, people with a shared philosophy. The distance between me (Sarah) and you (lovely customer) should be tiny (especially when compared to the big high street retailers).
- My philosophy is: Happy customers, happy business. It’s that simple.
- My mission is: To help people find a gift that they will love giving, to make other people as passionate about gift giving as I am. To consistently work hard at adapting, evolving, to follow styles and trends whilst maintaining the sense of quality, detail and longevity.
My business has to be sustainable for me too; I have to be able to sustain my family, keep the orders rolling in. Tiny independent businesses like mine (run from our family home, no staff, no warehouse, no ‘departments’, just me) don’t have the money, staff or advertising budgets that large companies do. But what we do have is agility. We can adapt with speed to offer people what they want: quickly, efficiently, with flair and personality. Businesses like mine remember customers, they have a friendly personal way of doing business - so many people that I count as friends were once customers. It’s about building relationships, not reading a name of a credit card as you hand it back.
There’s always going to be a place for high street shops, of course there is. All I ask, on my behalf and all of those other micro online businesses out there, is that you keep us in mind over the next 12 months. We kept going through all 3 lockdowns, with a cheery (mostly) disposition, adapting to the weird fluctuations of the retail world during coronavirus (zero orders one week, sales up 200% the following week, post office counters not always open when we thought they’d be, people suddenly needing to buy face masks rather than meals out!). We’ve adapted, cared, invented and evolved - and whilst it’s been stressful and meant a lot of long hours or hard work, it’s also been a hell of a lot of fun: long may it continue!
Stay safe, stay well,