We live in very interesting and for some at least, scary times. Business leaders across all sectors of the economy are at best hopeful that now the Government has eased further the restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, our economic recovery can now at least begin in earnest something which is keeping Chief Executives and Sole Traders alike awake at night. Prior to the lockdown and the ongoing uncertainty caused by Brexit, there seemed to be no shortage of people willing to go it alone and start their own businesses whether as sole trader, partnership, self-employed trades, freelances etc. They can be found across all sectors of the economy. According to the latest statistics from Federation of Small Businesses (FSB.org), in 2019 there were a record 5.8 million private sector businesses at the start of the year and increase of 200,000 since the previous year.
The New Normal
Currently SME’s account for 99% of the businesses in every main industry sector so on the surface this is good news. How many will survive the coming months and years ahead is difficult to say with economic activity down some 20% since April according to the ONS. There are however still opportunities for those willing to take the risk as consumers are inclined toward more local shopping avoiding the mad crush experienced at large retail parks and supermarkets. The use of modern technology to aid more home working particularly for those forced to work from home due to the current pandemic, and with the likelihood that this trend will continue as part of our new normal, should prove an opportunity for small local traders on the High Street in particular to cash in on a new income stream. For people working from home on a regular basis will still need to pop out and do some shopping or pick up a favourite brew, visit the post office or local hardware store, newsagent, butcher, greengrocer, bakery or perhaps use the time to browse the local library, something which cannot be done if working hours are also tied to commuting to an office or other location. So potentially a win-win situation especially if there is a thriving market in the vicinity.
I live in a small market town in the West Midlands and thanks to the efforts of both the local council and chambers of commerce, we have been fortunate to see a number of new start-ups combining both brand names and independent operations, alongside the already established chain outlets and other small businesses. We also have a busy market three times a week which brings in many locals to buy fresh fruit and veg, rugs and carpets, clothes, pet products, confectionery as well as a butcher’s stall. The market area itself has a combination of Post Office, high street brands such as Iceland and Wilko’s and independent outlets including what has become my independent coffee shop of choice. In our local bakery on the High Street, the owner’s claim to fame is selling two sausage rolls to future PM Boris Johnson when he did his tour of Black Country areas in 2019, despite a branch of Gregg’s being located nearby.
As a local freelancer who works from home, I try wherever possible to use these businesses to ensure that money spent is kept in the local economy. So I use the coffee shop for my Latte fix, I buy my fruit and veg off the market and on non-market day use the independent greengrocer. We also have a choice of three butchers whereas many others have seen theirs disappear. Birthday cards and novelties are bought from a delightful little shop round the corner from the market square. Next door is a shop which sells Hornby and Airfix models and other toys. We still have two high street bank branches where some places in the Black Country have none, and a local hardware shop avoiding the need to go to the likes of B&Q. I use a local printing company in the next village, a family-run business which do all my printed newsletters and leaflets. They also printed the orders of service for my parent’s funerals and did a superb job on the orders of service for my wedding in 2016. Another long-standing business just off the High Street makes and repairs picture frames, which are much more aesthetically pleasing and robust than the off the shelf versions you buy in supermarkets and household goods stores. There is also a Best Of published annually, showcasing the best in small and independent businesses covering most industry sectors. In the past where I chose to live was determined on having access to a decent local butcher, drycleaners, newsagent and bakers. I consider myself very fortunate to live in a town where we still have these, although this is only a snapshot of what’s available.
An Independent Future
Whatever the economic future post-COVID and post-Brexit for larger companies, small businesses particularly those serving the retail sector, are ideally placed to take advantage of the many forthcoming changes to the buying habits of the general public. In the past I have bored for England (despite being Irish) at Church services and other related events, that it is our duty as members of churches rooted in the community to support local businesses, and each other, wherever practicable to do so. As we emerge from the lockdown and with non-essential shops opening from today (June 15th) it is vital we continue to do this.
Competition may be healthy if handled correctly, but supporting our local independent businesses keeps our high streets and markets alive, which benefits all of us who wish to see our town centres and local communities not only emerge stronger from this pandemic but more importantly, reverse the decline of recent decades and thrive once again.