How independent businesses have grown and changed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2020, the total retail sales volumes fell by 1.9%, the largest annual fall on record, according to the Office of National Statistics.
Online shopping rose to a record high as shops up and down the high street closed their doors.
During the second lockdown in November, sales fell again by 4.1%, though card transaction data suggests that during the second and third lockdowns people started to spend more.
Many businesses tackled the lockdown by developing online services and relying on their local areas to help support them, with social media being a key player in the growth of my businesses.
Staying Chirpy during lockdown
“As the second lockdown eased and we went into December, I was shocked by the number of people that came in to visit when we reopened,” says Jo McBeath, owner of Chirpy, a small independent shop in Chapel Allerton.
“It snowballed a little; we’ve been open for years and I’ve always wanted to sell our products online, but I just never got around to it, there was always something bigger to do or some papers to file, but once the lockdown hit all I had was free time,” Jo goes on to say.
Chirpy is a contemporary gift shop and workshop space that stocks a variety of products from independent sellers, many of them based locally in Chapel Allerton, and offered sewing workshops before the pandemic.
“I was so surprised when it started, it was during the run-up to Christmas and we were getting so many orders, we even had a few from London and I just couldn’t believe it, I don’t even know how they would have found us.”
Councils have encouraged people to shop small, with Brent Council using the slogan “Shop Safe, Shop Local,” to help businesses bounce back.
Bigger companies have also been pushing for local businesses, with Tesco even producing an advert in papers and online that encouraged people to, “pop to your local if you can”.
However, according to a report by Simply Business, an estimated 234,000 small businesses were forced to close and 67% were forced to stop trading at some point during the pandemic.
“I felt that we were really lucky, I was overjoyed when people ordered from us online and it was great when we opened and we were able to have people in our shop again, it felt like nothing had changed.
“Where we’re based also helps, there are so many amazing small shops in Chapel Allerton and it’s not hard for people to shop local in this area, and since we stock such a range of products I feel like there’s something for everyone here.
“From what we’ve heard from customers and from how business has been since we reopened, it seems like a lot of people seemed to have extra income, especially during the first lockdown, since no one was going out, and people seemed like they wanted to treat themselves.
“People also seemed to want to shop local, I noticed a lot more people were finding us online from all over the country, and I think that during the pandemic people didn’t really want to support massive companies anymore,” Jo says.
COVID-19 gave many businesses the chance to develop online services, with Growth Intelligence reporting that 85,000 businesses launched online stores in the four months from April 2020.
“I’m happy we’ve developed our online presence, I think without the pandemic it could have been years before I would have, and that would mean that a lot fewer people would have been able to find us.
“I think that there is a time for using sites like Amazon and eBay and a time for shopping locally; it seems like it’s that time now more than ever.”
Have you Botany plants recently?
“The second lockdown was different from the first lockdown, people stayed home less and the variety of plants available for a lower price from supermarkets increased as the house plant trend continued,” says Rebecca Aning-Brown, owner of Silver Grey Foliage and The Green Yard.
As the lockdown progressed, many people started to pick up new hobbies and interests; one of the more noticeable hobbies was botany, specifically houseplants, as hundreds of Brits brought greenery into their home.
Research from the Flowers and Plant Association said that the UK indoor plant and fresh flower market is worth around £2.2b, showing the enthusiasm people have for their leafy friends.
The Green Yard is located in the Heart Centre in Headingley, stocking both indoor and outdoor plants, and Silver Grey Foliage is a site that houses not only plants and flowers but information on how to care for your garden, and the benefits of developing a green thumb.
“We’ve had individualised orders on specific plants, and you could tell when someone was just getting into the hobby,” says Antony, the co-owner of Silver Grey Foliage.
“Branching out into Headingley was great, opening up The Green Yard in the Heart Centre meant that we could sell more products but also be a part of the community; we’re in an area with a butcher, a baker, an art shop and now, a flower shop.
“It’s also been great for us personally; it’s given us both something to focus and work on since everything shut, the only negative is just the level of uncertainty that seems to be clouding over most independent shops, no one was sure if they were still going to be there after each lockdown came,” Antony revealed.
“Shopping locally is still a theme,” Rebecca goes on to say. “But now people are conscious that losing the big high-street brands also has an effect, which is visible now that some shops just haven’t reopened.”
Rebecca and Antony consider local businesses and communities to be very important, their website asks the reader what life would be like if everything could be found by walking only 15 minutes; creating a 15-minute community.
“Imagine being able to walk to the shops and have the full range of services available. Imagine having the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker, not to mention the doctor, dentist, post-office, banks, schools and parks right on your doorstep,” Rebecca says.
Rebecca and Antony moved into the plant business in 2019, despite the fact they both have backgrounds in health and medicine, as they wanted to explore the different seasonal flowers that you can grow in Britain and challenged themselves to grow out of season eucalyptus for a close friend’s wedding.
“We wanted to reflect on how we should open, but thankfully business has been steady and we’ve been lucky enough to see our regular customers as well as a few new faces,” says Rebecca.
Anything you fancy?
“We were around for only eight months before we had to fully close for the pandemic, which was quite scary for a small gift shop,” says Tasha Grant, owner of Flavour Like Fancy, a small retail shop in Meanwood.
“The lockdowns were difficult for us, having to rely on online sales alone for a shop that had the benefit of bricks and mortar is naturally going to be a struggle; I am so glad we were able to come out of it.”
Flavour Like Fancy is an independent gift shop based in Leeds; set up by London born jewellery maker Tasha Grant, with the aim to highlight independent artists and businesses from the north.
According to a report by Simply Business, there was an 18% increase in online retailers from 2019 to 2020, and 11% of businesses were able to adopt new digital technology into their business.
“When we closed we had no choice but to use our website to create a stronger online presence,” Tasha goes on to say.
“In the beginning, it felt like a mad rush of photographing products and uploading images, as the website had always been secondary to shopping, but the great thing about having to focus on the website is that now it is stronger than ever!
“I’ve learnt a lot in terms of the build and finding ways to improve the customer journey which is fantastic for us.”
Many businesses have also reported that the vaccination roll outs have made them more comfortable reopening, as 65% said that the roll out has made them more confident about the recovery of their business.
“Since reopening we’ve had some bust days and some quieter ones, I feel it’s a reflection of how people are feeling within the pandemic.
“Retail can be really unpredictable in general but I do hope to gain some level of continuity soon; it will be very interesting to see what happens in the coming months as the vaccines continue to roll out and more and more people feel safe coming to see us.”
“I’m so happy I’ve had the chance to continue working here; as an independent artist myself I feel very lucky to know that I have a stable source of income,” says Alice Newman, an illustrator and part-time staff member at Flavour Like Fancy.
“There has definitely been a lot of people who want to shop local since everything’s happened; I think people are looking for quirky and individualised pieces of art now more than ever, which is exactly what you’ll find in our shop.
“I tried to make the most out of the pandemic, the main benefit has been I’ve been able to create more artwork and work on expanding my audience, social media has definitely been a key factor,” says Alice.
It’s thought that the pandemic has cost independent businesses upwards of £126.6b, which is almost double the projected number from 2019.
“What we saw was a mixture; at the start of lockdown people spent money mostly on themselves, but as time went on it seemed more people started to buy gifts for each other, not necessarily to mark any occasion but more of a just-because style of gifting,” Tasha says.
“It was lovely to see this type of attitude, and we noticed that when purchases were made, the average spend increased, which could be due to an increase in disposable income but may be down to the push to support local independent businesses.”
Infographics released by Mediaocean suggested that the amount of money spent on advertisements across top marketplaces and social media platforms rose by 31% year-on-year in March 2021, the highest rate since January 2020.
The increase in advertising is thought to be due to the pandemic, with the UK advertising market expected to be the second-highest for growth in 2021.
“A lot of new people have discovered us over the past year; there has been an amazing drive of community spirit with locals going out of their way to support the local businesses within their area.
“Whether it’s from our new online presence, social media or just word of mouth we’ve been so lucky to meet so many new customers who discovered us after each lockdown, we really hope it continues,” Tasha says.
The silver lining
Looking towards the positives, many businesses have reported that the lockdown has given them a chance to rest and has given them more time to spend with their family.
The report from Simply Business also claims that there has been a 157% year-on-year increase in requests for insurance, as new entrepreneurs have seen a massive surge of growth.
With the vaccinations rolling out and the country continuing to slowly reopen, it’s projected that in-store and online sales will return to pre-pandemic levels by spring or summer of 2022 at the latest.
Thankfully, according to the Office for National Statistics, as a whole retail sales in Great Britain have recovered from the “large contraction” in March and April 2020, and should continue to grow as time goes on.
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