After a bruising year for retail, there are finally some reasons for optimism going into 2024.
The holiday season appears to be delivering to expectations. The freeze on business rates has put real cash in retailers’ pockets. And while I hear from our retailers some nervousness about the continued impact of our struggling economy on discretionary spending, the deceleration of inflation should at least prevent customers from tightening the purse strings even further.
So what does this mean for the UK high street in the year ahead? Well, here are four trends that show how independent retailers can seize the initiative and drive a much-needed town centre resurgence.
Firstly, with prices high and household finances stretched, retailers need to provide high quality and unique/exclusive products that resonate with customers’ values to get reluctant shoppers reaching for their wallets. Independent retail is in the ideal position to deliver this type of distinct and values-driven proposition. Indeed, ‘Not on Amazon’ is the most popular filter on our wholesale marketplace, demonstrating that independents have already got the memo.
Secondly, shoppers are very much social animals who want to touch and feel things, form connections and be entertained. Many of the sad and notable losses on the high street, like Wilko, have been the result of big businesses losing sight of the customer. By contrast, independents can command the ‘real person premium’. Educational or local content and events; handwritten notes; a real person picking up the phone – these are all things that the big boys can’t do nearly as well and where small businesses can lean in next year.
Thirdly, the line between brands and retailers is blurring. We’re seeing local businesses trying to capitalise on their existing customer loyalty – and grow their awareness – by selling their own branded merchandise. At the same time, we’re seeing venues such as pubs, cafes and salons converting physical space to sell products that they know will resonate with their patrons. In 2024, this will make for a more compelling high street experience, with every venue giving shoppers a reason to step inside.
Fourthly, while AI can seem like the most buzzy buzzword, I hope that it becomes a secret weapon for independent retailers in 2024. I have already seen some of our retailers using AI to save time, grow their sales and get creative in extraordinary ways. Chat GPT can be used to write customer emails, recommend merchandising, design marketing strategies and reword product listings… the list goes on. And many of the tools that independent retailers were already using are being sprinkled with AI magic – Shopify Magic and Canva Magic Design are our retailers’ current favourites.
Finally, through the work of Totally Locally and other grassroots movements, we’re seeing some great examples of independent retailers working together to benefit their communities. This type of communication collaboration presents a huge opportunity in the year ahead. Remember – when you add up the long tail of independent retail revenue, it’s bigger than Amazon!
There truly is a power in a collective mindset for small businesses. Retailers need to put aside the ‘shop wars’ mentality that can creep in when times are hard, and discover new ways of working together, to address the issue of empty shops in our gap-tooth high streets, and bring shoppers back to our town centres.