Friday, 9 April 2021

The changing face of retail in a time of Covid...

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,

Sarah x


29 comments:

  1. Lovely Blog Sarah; keep meaning to get round to doing one myself.
    Did you know that I have moved? In January we moved to Woodbridge, in Suffolk, to be nearer our family.
    Miss Dereham though.
    SallyAnn

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  2. Hi SallyAnn - belated congratulations on your house move, I hope you've settled in well, it must be lovely to be closer to family!

    I'm going to post a link to your Folksy shop so that anyone looking for a lovely unique greeting card can find you! https://folksy.com/shops/thegreetingscardshop

    Sarah x

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  3. Excellent blog post! Heather x
    https://folksy.com/shops/heatherandhome

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  4. Lovely post, I haven't been to many large retail shops for years, and now with covid 19 I hardly go to any shops at all, now that they are starting to open I will visit some of the small town high street shops close to my village. All gifts etc I've had to buy this year have been from small online businesses and this has made both me and them very happy.
    My store on Folksy is
    https://folksy.com/shops/HandcraftedbyPicto

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    1. No, I don't feel ready for the high street yet - and I really hope that those dedicated high-street shoppers who've always shopped in bricks & mortar shops have now discovered the joys of shopping online in comfort, finding more choice and uniqueness and stick with it!

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  5. Hi Sarah, such a lovely post! I miss Woolies too and C&A, though I’m not sure many people remember them these days. Change is inevitable but you’re right when you say it’s about how adaptable we are.

    Good luck.

    Cheers Lou (https://folksy.com/shops/WhimsicalBells)

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    1. C&A, yes! My dad still has a C&A shirt that I bought him for Christmas about 30 years ago... they certainly made stuff to last in those days!!

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  6. Excellent Blog Sarah! I agree, if a shop assistant thanked me using my name, I’d immediately panic that it’s someone I semi know and not recognised them or something! Excellent customer service and a personal touch is so important and something I strive to do in my own little business. If you’d like to take a sneaky peeky, my shop is https://folksy.com/shops/BlueDesignShed

    Have a great weekend and good luck if you brave the high street this week. I’m leaving it a while yet as I don’t need anything (but really miss eating out, cinema and theatre.)

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    1. Ooh, love your shop Bex! (And Monty the cockapoo - adorable! We have a cumberpoo who looks very like a black version of Monty!) ...and yes, definitely miss restaurants and just being able to go out. One day soon x

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  7. Excellent Blog Sarah! I agree, if a shop assistant thanked me using my name, I’d immediately panic that it’s someone I semi know and not recognised them or something! Excellent customer service and a personal touch is so important and something I strive to do in my own little business. If you’d like to take a sneaky peeky, my shop is https://folksy.com/shops/BlueDesignShed

    Have a great weekend and good luck if you brave the high street this week. I’m leaving it a while yet as I don’t need anything (but really miss eating out, cinema and theatre.)

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  8. Excellent Blog Sarah! I agree, if a shop assistant thanked me using my name, I’d immediately panic that it’s someone I semi know and not recognised them or something! Excellent customer service and a personal touch is so important and something I strive to do in my own little business. If you’d like to take a sneaky peeky, my shop is https://folksy.com/shops/BlueDesignShed

    Have a great weekend and good luck if you brave the high street this week. I’m leaving it a while yet as I don’t need anything (but really miss eating out, cinema and theatre.)

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  9. Thank you for your informative article.
    I am an artist and paint original art and also illustrates children's books.
    Here is the link to my folksy shop:
    https://folksy.com/shops/Marjansart

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    Replies
    1. Absolutely love your shop Marjan - makes me smile when I look at it!

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  10. A great blog post Sarah and a very thoughtful insight into retail. Like you I hate shop assistants calling me by the name they've just seen on my credit card - a smile and a 'thank you' is all I need! I've never been much of a shopper and am a 'buy what I need' and not 'buy what I want' type. As far as possible I try to buy from small independent shops or small online retailers.

    I have started selling some of my cards on Folksy (crafting is my hobby and I make far too many cards to send myself) and I love to hear that customers are happy with their purchases. My shop address is: http://handmadebykath.blogspot.com/

    Kath x

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    Replies
    1. Yes, it's definitely weird for a shop assistant to call you by your name when they don't know you - so glad I'm not alone in my thinking!! :)

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  11. Very well said Sarah, we can't take anything for granted these days. There have been so many changes to all our lives in the past year, it can sometimes be hard to remember what 'normal' is!

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  12. So very true- customers are making mindful decisions about who to buy from and as a micro handmade business, I'm always thrilled when a like minded buyer connects with me and invests in my makes.

    Annie x

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    1. Couldn't agree more Annie! I've just been taking a look at your lovely Folksy shop - https://folksy.com/shops/PoppyDarling - your work is beautiful :)

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    2. Thank you Sarah, much appreciated x

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  13. Thanks Sarah, got here in the end!
    Really enjoyed your blog, so true, will definately be following you (online only of course)ha ha!
    As a teenager in the 1960's (I was a mod), C&A was great, not expensive and great fashionable clothes. There was also Chelsea Girl where I shopped most Saturday's for going out that evening.
    Sad so many shops have now gone, BHS was another.
    Sandra

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    1. Yes, I remember Chelsea Girl too - and Snob was another... and Richard Shops: I remember their advert telling us to 'make the world a prettier place' by dressing in their clothes! (Not sure they'd get away with that now!!) I've been trying to remember the trendy teen range from C&A - was it called something like Clockwork? Clockhouse? Something like that!

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  14. https://folksy.com/shops/Dotto

    What an interesting article and very well expressed. The salesperson sneaking a look at your plastic card in order to greet you by name is a bit dodgy, in my opinion - these days we should all (hopefully) have learned how to keep our personal details safe and secure, so it must be very unnerving when you get greeted in such a direct way by a stranger. An exception - the postman and, more recently the lovely Hermes delivery man generally greet me by name as I open the door and it always makes me smile.

    When people buy from an online craft outlet, I think it is important for the seller to go the extra mile. We can’t engage face to face with the customer, but we can make them smile in other ways. For example … beautiful packaging … a handwritten “thank you” note … and even a surprise free gift - anything to make them feel special and to show that their attention to you has been appreciated and reciprocated. This is the nature of online craft selling. This is the difference. For me, personally, I take it as an enormous compliment when somebody buys from me and I want to show my delight! I hope this is enough for people to continue to value online craft shopping … I think it will be. I think online craft shops will continue to be very popular, as people search for original items and “something different”.

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  15. I read this with interest, as a maker with a Folksy shop and also a consumer in larger stores (its difficult to abandon it altogether) I imagine like most of us I see both sides. My hope is that people have enjoyed the experience we have worked so hard to deliver and remain loyal.
    Realistically I think it will always be certain people who love and understand buying handmade and individual items but hey - I never set out to be Primart.

    My folksy shop - definitely smaller than Primart -

    http://folksy.com/shops/Sethceramics

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  16. Gorgeous shop - love your little wrens!

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