CEO, British Independant Retailers Association (Bira)
We’re inundated with stories of the death of the high street, especially when we see headlines of retail giants having to close stores or go into recession. The rise of online shopping has had a huge impact, as have ever-rising costs, including business rates and rents. So it’s easy for us to buy into the narrative.
However, there is plenty of research suggesting that, although 90% of people may start their search online, a high percentage of shoppers are choosing to buy in shops.
Independents are better placed to respond to consumer needs with their agile business model and close affinity with their market. Up and down the country independent retailers – who are often family-owned businesses passed down from generation to generation – are fighting hard to keep their businesses afloat.
It’s not easy and many have faced closures, but there is an entrepreneurial spirit that keeps them going, as well as the desire to keep serving their local communities.
The current independent landscape
In 2018, independent retail businesses accounted for 64% of all retail and leisure units in the UK. Service retail (hair and nail salons, tattoo parlours and dry cleaners) saw 992 new units in 2018, predominantly driven by barbers.
Independent leisure units like restaurants, cafes and entertainment saw an increase of 710 units too. Independent vegan and Jamaican restaurants increased by 52% and 15% respectively.
Struggling sectors included those in the independent ‘convenience’ retail category (grocery and convenience stores), which saw a net decline of -590 units last year, potentially down to the competition from bigger chains. Other categories in decline included estate agents, newsagents and fashion shops.
Our recent Quarterly Sales Survey results reflect the difficult times ‘comparison goods’ retailers (books, homewares retailers) in particular find themselves in. Sales among our members were down by -2.94% in quarter two this year compared to the same quarter in 2018.
Despite the gloom, independent retail businesses are surviving
Those bricks and mortar businesses that are surviving are those that offer service-based retail, for example coffee, barbers and nail salons which, unsurprisingly, are all things that you can’t get on the internet!
We’ve seen many of our members capitalise on this by introducing coffee shops and delis in their bookshops and offering cooking classes and book signings in their cookshops.
By adapting and diversifying their offering they are able to attract new customers and offer them something that they have to come into their shop for.
We mustn’t also forget that many people are completely reliant on their local high street for essential shopping and services. For some, it might also be the only human contact they get, and we can’t allow this crucial community to be lost.
Without doubt, our high streets need to change, and we look forward to seeing how the new £675 million Future High Streets Fund will be spent. We absolutely believe retail will be at the heart of our future high streets, however, we know it will only be part of it and not the only reason to visit.
What can we do to help?
Bira is here to solely support the interests of independent retailers. We fought to get a reduction in business rates for small businesses and we were happy to see a 30% reduction in rates for the smallest businesses last year, but it can’t stop there.
The reduction isn’t guaranteed after 2021, and if rates increase after this point there will undoubtedly be more closures, as some retailers have only survived this year because of this lifeline.
We are also calling on local councils to provide more free and accessible parking in town centres. Too many towns are suffering due to the cost of parking, which has become a deterrent to visiting town centres.
It is all of our jobs to continue to support our local businesses too. Spending money locally has many benefits; not only does it keep money in the local economy, which means better services for you in the long run, but it also provides jobs.
By shopping local you can also benefit from the personal service and advice from retailers that care about you. They can instruct you, chat through the options and will remember you the next time you go in!
With all of our support and with stronger backing from the government and local councils, we truly believe there is a future for bricks and mortar retail.
 Results from Bira and LDC’s Openings and Closures Report 2018