When a mighty oak falls the sunlight blazes in. The resulting glade sees green shoots appear with all manner of species stimulated to grow and compete for this finite opportunity. A metaphor for business, the British high-street has seen many old oaks fall over and die recently, and, with optimism, the light that this allows to shine into the market could make it a boom time for new independents to open. With people shopping more locally, wanting the opposite of chain stores and craving something different, it is predicted that we will see a flood of independent brands and stores grasping to fill this void.
Left - Image from @ollyrzysko Twitter documenting the new independent stores in Broadstairs
Andrew Goodacre, CEO of Bira (British Independent Retailers Association) says, “It is a fact that people who have lost jobs often look to start their own businesses.”
It is worth noting how much better the leaner, and more flexible independent businesses weathered the pandemic. Recent research from the Local Data Company, the UK's most accurate retail location data company, confirmed there were 31,405 openings of independent units in 2020. Though openings were outweighed by 32,847 closures and resulted in the independent market shrinking by -0.4% (-1,442 units), it compares much more favourably to the chain market which declined by -4.5%, almost 10,000 units.
“We have also seen a resurgence in people shopping locally and there has been a significant increase in service retailing – barbers, hairdressers, cafes, etc.” says Goodacre.
“Indies have a personality and connection with their local communities that cannot be matched by the large chains. This is a good time because more people are shopping locally and care more about their local economy.
“Shopping locally, away from the large city centres, has happened throughout the UK, including London, as the boroughs have prospered at the expense of those shops in the centre or near high volume commuter stations.” says Goodacre.
Olly Rzysko, Founder of Good Candles, recently charted the arrival of numerous new independent retailers in the seaside town of Broadstairs through his Twitter channel @ollyrzysko, “I saw a lot of new units opening up, stores that were previously closed or maybe very tired reinventing themselves.” he says.
“Some of what had been previously pretty dead spots of high street were coming alive with new spaces from Affinity Brewery, a new lifestyle store and one of the most successful stores upgrading to a bigger unit. There were at least 6 new stores and several new places to eat and drink in a tiny town.” says Rzysko.
Why do you think so many independents are opening right now? And why there?
“I think it’s a mix of relatively affordably retail property, a mindset from people that they want local stores and a growing population by the coast that are willing to spend money here.” he says. “E-commerce is amazing if you have a unique product or a specific proposition but a real store can be so versatile and be a hub for the community and the brand.
“Independents can offer some choice, curated choice. I love Selfridges and their curation of product but I can’t go every week. Having some stores locally that can bring together interesting products and in some cases more local ones is really powerful. We’ve had a year of ’buy local’ messaging and I do think people really do want to spend more near to home.” he says.
“A lot of people are going back to offices this year but for many of us that will prob be 3 days a week. That has some significant impact. City centres lose 20% of footfall for every day we work from home (eg 20% of the Mon-Fri traffic for each day), this traffic is now local to where the workers live. They still want to buy lunch or a birthday card or a bottle of wine, but the money will be spent nearer to home.
“It is much easier to change tactics when you’re one store in a small town, much harder when you have shareholders and growth targets.” he says.
To kick start retail after lockdown many within the retail industry were calling for a ‘Shop Out to Help Out’ scheme, urging the government to support the sector by offering customers 50% off the cost of goods at independent retailers up to a maximum price of £10. Positively, since then retail sales volumes grew sharply in April 2021 with a monthly increase of 9.2%, reflecting the effect of the easing of coronavirus restrictions according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics. Non-food stores provided the largest contribution to the monthly growth in April 2021 sales volumes, aided by strong increases of 69.4% and 25.3% in clothing stores and other non-food stores respectively.
Masato Jones is an independent fashion designer who has recently opened his first store in Leeds. Originally from Japan, he studied at Central St. Martins and started his eponymous label in 2012. He was based in London.
“London is so expensive, and doing bespoke I need to be somewhere in a city.” he says. “London has become slightly too commercial and I found Leeds has a very individual style. I saw young people wearing quite a unique style.
Right - Durham
“It seems the north like my style, the south are very quiet, my first impression was go north. We looked at Manchester and Liverpool, but I like what is going on in Leeds.” he says.
Selling men’s and womenswear, the newly opened store is in Thornton Arcade, just around the corner from Louis Vuitton in the centre of Leeds. It has an atelier on the 1st floor, open for pattern cutting and garment making classes, all tutored by Jones. Speaking before the move, he said, “It is very difficult to survive here in London right now, especially if a small business. The Leeds arcade has all independent shops apart from Starbucks, and we will stock artists’ work as well.”
Independents' Day is the national campaign to celebrate and promote the UK's independent retailers on 4th July. It started out as a small idea in the North of England and has grown into a multi-award-winning worldwide movement. Independents' Day UK is a not-for-profit campaign that exists to support and promote independent retail businesses across the UK all year round, but with an annual focus on July 4th. On July 4th retailers get involved by running special events and promotions including themed window displays, high street festivities, discounts and offers.There is now a network of ‘Totally Locally Towns’ across the world, sharing ideas, working together and making a difference to their independent businesses.
Further north, the City of Durham Parish Council has launched ‘Indie Durham City’. Managed by Gateshead-based retail consultants CannyInsights.com. It has been running since May 2020 to support and promote independent shops, cafes, restaurants, bars and other businesses in Durham’s historic city centre.
Graham Soult, Retail Consultant at Canny Insights says, “Indie Durham City was created in response to the pandemic to support and promote independent businesses. I’m helping make them more digital, update their Google listings, Facebook etc. all with free support from me.”
By helping them digitally it has increased awareness of the physical place to draw shoppers in.
“Initially they were really cautious about using those channels, but they are embracing them a lot more, all sharing updates in a given location which makes it a destination place.” he says.
The city social media has amplified the message. “Facebook, Instagram, Twitter are really important in providing footfall, people will check you out beforehand. You get that verification, the retailers are telling me they came in today and said they saw me on Facebook.” he says.
“There has been a flurry of independents,” says Soult. “We saw this before Christmas when 5 new independents opened in that period, and there’s another 4 new independents in a 200 metres stretch in the city. There’s clearly an appetite.” he says.
“The smaller towns that already have a independent cohort already, those places are proving quote robust with people living close by.” says Soult.
"It’s the in-between towns, they aren’t top tier, nor small market towns, places like Warrington and Middlesborough, who have the biggest reinvention ahead of them.” he says. “Get all the key stakeholders, like the council and landlords all working together, and the places doing that have that energy all pushing in the right direction.” says Soult.
People are seeing more independents because they are spending more time in their locales. There’s also not as much pull from the city or shopping centres with the widespread and much publicised bankruptcies of huge retail chains. There’s something quite sad about city centres right now with empty shops and boarded up retail units. It’s currently cooler and more original shopping local and doing business directly with the owner. There’s also a need and desire to tap into their knowledge and expertise and have a human connection.
These independent businesses still need online and social media to drive people to their physical stores, and it works better collectively. It’s very much stronger together. But, they need to do more than simply exist. They are competing for the pounds in people’s pockets, and while they probably won’t be able to match online on price, they can compete on originality, convenience, service and, most importantly of all, that personal touch.
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Money greases the wheels of our consumerist society. Without this continual flow of finance the economy contracts and many people lose their livelihoods, especially in retail.
It is completely natural, and prudent, to want to save in periods of uncertainty. Talk of entering the worst recession for over 300 years would make even the most optimistic of people think twice about a big purchase or being frivolous with their cash.
COVID 19 has been a tale of two working economies; those, generally, white collar workers working from home, whose wages weren’t affected, saving money on travel and lunches, and those reliant on these workers being made redundant or having their hours reduced. Many workers on furlough have been in an economic form of limbo, and while they have not seen most of their income disappear, this is quickly coming to an end and some will be made redundant. Many of these jobs will not be deemed ‘viable’ in the short term.
Left - Results of website loveMONEY poll
A small poll by the website loveMONEY, in June, found readers say their finances have actually improved under lockdown. A remarkable 23% said they were significantly better off, while the biggest amount, 36%, said things had improved slightly.
At the other end of the scale, 13%, more than one in eight, reported that their finances had been hammered since the lockdown came into effect, while a similar percentage (14%) said they were slightly worse off. Finally, 14% of respondents said their bank balance looked largely the same at the end of each month.
The vast majority of people spent less during lockdown because they had less things to spend money on and most not leaving the house.
According to a study by AA Financial Services, 85% of UK adults spent less during lockdown. The average Brit saved (per month) £49 a month on petrol, £57 by not going to pubs or restaurants, £53 by not going to shops, and significant savings in other areas, totalling £617 a month on average for those still receiving their full income.
The report also found that 31% of people with savings accounts had increased their monthly deposits since the start of lockdown. This was confirmed by Bank of England data, which found that personal bank deposits had grown by three times the recent average. The Bank revealed that consumer debt was down by £7.4 billion, to just half the level seen in February. Those who are benefiting from excess income are in many cases using their spare money to pay down debts, while choosing not to take out new loans due to increased uncertainty.
According to Aviva, women seem to have been affected more strongly with 38% of women vs 29% of men saying they have less money to spare at the end of the month than they did pre-lockdown. This could be due to the types of jobs women do, like part time and in customer-facing roles.
Young adults have also been hit hard. Almost a third of 25- to 34-year-olds (32%) are concerned about their ability to save. This age group is also the most worried about losing their job due the impact of COVID-19 (28%).
Aviva Head of Savings and Retirement Alistair McQueen says: “Female savers look to have been disproportionately affected during the lockdown, as workers in sectors like hospitality and retail are more likely to be younger females. Younger people across the board also face a significant challenge. Those under 34 typically struggle to save under normal circumstances, but the current conditions have exacerbated this. For example, this age group typically spends a greater proportion of their budget on housing, and bills, which remains unchanged.”
In August, there was a big government push to get white collar workers back to the office. Then a recent u-turn, telling people to work from home again with positive COVID 19 cases rising. Many commuters don’t want to go back to that lifestyle and it’s easy to understand why.
DJ Sinfield @BigSino on Twitter said, “I am WORKING from home. I am saving £500+ a month and getting an extra 3 hours a day family time. This money and time is being spent at farm shops, local butchers etc and not Southeastern Trains. Why would I want to go back to commuting? Why?”
John Bye @_johnbye said, “The fact is many of us have enjoyed working from home, and companies have realised they're wasting money on big offices they don't really need. I save £300 a month and 2.5 hours a day by not commuting. Why would I want to go back to a London office full time?” and Paul Chapman @Paul_C-Chapman said, “I am saving around £30/day on rail fares and food, I have 3 hours/day of my life back, I have a much better work/life balance and my health is better. Why on earth would I want to go back to daily commuting?”
With interest rates dropping like a stone for savings, for example, the government backed NS&I just reduced its ‘Income Bond’ from a paltry 1.16% to an almost zero 0.01%, the incentive to save has been reduced. What we need is people to spend our way into a U shaped recovery. We need the people, on the positive side of the COVID recession, with this additional monthly money, to spend it.
This is a call to arms for work-from-homers to spend. It’s not about people spend their savings, it is also not about people spending more money than they would usually, it’s about those with this worker windfall - what they would have otherwise have spent on lunch and travel etc.- to inject that into the economy. It’s tempting to save it, but it’s money they wouldn’t have had on a monthly basis.
Put it into retail and services worth supporting, and retailers and brands they don’t want to see disappear and are rewarded with their custom. This isn’t about lazily rewarding shops or travel companies that aren’t very good or really are past their peak, it’s about supporting new or established businesses which resonate with you and make or provide great services or products.
It could be ethical or green products or services. It could be new business, crowd funding and start-ups. Look at it like an investment in the future you want to see. It’s time to put this bonus money to good use.
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The biggest retail opening of 2018 was Coal Drops Yard in Kings Cross. This former Victorian railway sidings for coal coming into London from the north has been transformed, thanks to Thomas Heatherwick, into a contemporary retail destination.
Left - Koibird in Marylebone
While the kissing roofs are elegant and memorable, the rest of the development is less inspiring. The brand list is the type concocted by an architect who is shopping like a design magazine rather than the realities of retail in 2019. It feels a bit 10 years ago and doesn’t acknowledge the recent Guccification of the world. We really doesn’t need anymore boring “designer” shops.
A case in point is the Paul Smith store. Housed in the former Bagley’s nightclub, you’d expect some sort of crazy ecstasy interior: testament to the many clubbers who wore Paul Smith on the dance floor. But, no. There’s even a white wall.
It’s 2019 and we’re in the “Age of Bonkers” when it comes to retail and if a shop doesn’t have you reaching for your phone to take a picture straight away then they’re clearly doing something wrong. Retail needs to wow, it needs to shock, it needs to entertain, otherwise you can get everything else online.
You need people to mouth “that’s cool” when they walk in or see something, especially when you’re trying to create a destination, as is the case here. This isn’t need: this is visitor attraction with the hope of souvenirs purchased. It’s that excitement and rush of shoppers' adrenaline that makes people glad they left the house. It’s not just about being conceptual, it’s about fun, wit and being relatable and current.
We often forget how experimental retail once was. From the Victorian pioneers of the department store to the independent boutiques of the 60s to the cool minimalism of the 90s and this was all pre-internet. Now, it’s more important than ever to give physical retail a fighting chance and bonkers it should be.
Examples include Koibird in Marylebone and Gentle Monster, the Korean eyewear brand, who opened their first UK store on Soho’s Argyll Street last year, both creating and refreshing interiors that stimulate and keep people coming back.
The Koibird store recently closed for two months while the interior was changed from their beach concept to their ski store. Founder, Belma Gaudio, established Koibird out of her frustrations of not being able to find clothes to match her holiday destinations. The new ski concept is another instagrammable interior featuring the colourfully rounded Koibird “K”. “Koibird is on a mission to inject some much needed playfulness into skiwear.” Gaudio told British Vogue when she recently unveiled it.
Right - Gentle Monster Argyll Street, Soho
Gentle Monster, a Korean sunglasses and optical glasses brand founded by Hankook Kim, was established in Seoul in 2011. “I wanted the products to look as if they were being exhibited.” said Kim in 2016. Today, they have over 40 stores worldwide and employ 6 people to design its eyewear compared to 60 people to design the store visuals. This shows the priority of their interiors within the company and the Seoul flagship is transformed every 25 days.
While these types of continual makeovers can be expensive, it can also be minimised with enough imagination. This is the traditional idea of changing windows becoming a fully immersive and experiential retail experience.
Fragrance is something physical and as such, Ostens, a new perfume brand by Laurent Delafon and Christopher Yu, has created a pop-up store in Marylebone, to showcase its debut. Open until the end of February, it is an abstract showcase of their new brand.
“We love Gentle Monster, we love spaces that drag you in , that speak to your curiosity. And this is the main idea behind Ostens: olfactive curiosity and discovery through the exploration of the ingredients.” says Delafon.
“So, we set up the space in 3 distinct areas, part of ‘journey’ taking you from the ingredient to the perfume: the Rose oil from Isparta, in the neon lit front room, magnified and presented like an objet d’art.” he says.
"All the rooms are appealing, they are fun, they are instagramable, and they are attracting people that wouldn’t necessarily been attracted by a ‘normal’ perfume shop.” says Delafon. “If you create spaces that are enjoyable, exciting and surprising places for your consumers to interact with the brand, you enhance their experience, and you make the whole purchasing act much more than simply about the product.” he says.
“The idea is to change the whole set-up of the store every two months. Like an art gallery would change its exhibitions. We intend to move Ostens to a central location, where the store will be more of a white box in which we will be able to rotate sculptures, videos installations, theatre sets, interactive displays..To parody Magritte…’this is not a perfume shop’!” says Delafon.
Left - New fragrance brand, Ostens, launching with a bonkers pop-up shop in Marylebone
Retailers are fighting for people’s time. You need something to grab people’s attention, make them stop and have a desire to enter and explore. Half the battle is getting your product in front of people, then at least you have a chance of a sale.
The home page on Koibird’s website reads “Never Boring…” and this is exactly how physical retail needs to think.
French beauty company, L’Occitane, opened their huge - the largest in the world - new flagship store on London’s Regent Street last night. This isn’t just another standard branch, it’s spacious, has a luxurious yet homely finish and even has a Pierre Hermé macaroon counter to boot. It feels like a cross between an airport lounge and a store. It’s definitely somewhere you could happily spend time in.
Left - Upstairs at L'Occitane Regent Street February 2018
Anyway, chatting away, somebody mentioned their boyfriend had come into the store previously and was looking for hand cream. The sales assistant said it was upstairs. As he went upstairs another sales assistant came over and said, “You’re looking for hand cream?”.
Mind reading is a skill that modern retail needs. Clearly, the sales assistant, downstairs, had radioed ahead. Not only is this great service, it’s also a form of human cookies - the chain of information your internet journey/history leaves behind allowing brands to track your movements and also recommend appropriate stuff.
It’s not magic, it’s just clever data, and I, for one, don’t mind having things recommended for me or being reminded I looked at something previously. You can clear your history every now and again if it becomes annoying.
What this shows is a linked up journey in a physical store. The customer is looking for something and rather being lost somewhere on the journey or not finding what they want, the sales links became strong and would obviously have more conversion in sales with the added bonus of wowing the customer and making them feel they had received great service.
Right - The flower filled ceiling installation from above inside the new L'Occitane Regent Street store
This is what physical stores need in order to compete with online: sales assistants quickly talking to each other, directing the consumer and having that want to please and fulfil expectation.
I understand many stores are too busy, some of the time, for this type of individual attention, but many luxury brands can offer this type of service if the sale assistants are motivated. It’s about a personal, human touch, which in the future we will miss from online shopping and something that can become a physical store USP.
‘Human Cookies’, as a concept, would definitely put new meaning into a physical store’s customer journey.