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Rise of the Online Local

If you’re a Star Trek fan you’ll be familiar with the Klingon Cloaking Device, which makes spaceships invisible. Many local retailers in recent years must have felt that they too had somehow become undetectable, with shoppers walking passed oblivious – wallet share reserved for shinier, better-advertised, global alternatives.

Things however are changing. Amidst the turmoil of 2020, fixed lines in the retail space – between large national/international ecommerce platforms and local, convenient physical stores – are now blurring. 

In other words consumers are gaining a newfound appreciation for local providers. And with Covid making the world feel like a smaller place, this ‘rediscovery’ of independent stores is helping build new loyalties that could last into the long-term.

Loyal for local

Becoming loyal for local

First let’s look at the numbers. As reported in May during the height of the lockdown, corner shops and independent grocery stores were experiencing a 63% surge in trade. 

Many of these businesses, operating under brand names such as Londis, Spa, and Budgens, recorded growth levels more than double the Co-op (the fastest growing grocery chain). 

Alongside this dramatic increase in commerce came a rise in support for local shops on social media, including:

  • Hashtags such as #shopsmall were used 61x more often in March than the previous year

  • #supportlocal or similar was used in 108 million online posts in March, up from 1.76 million in 2019

  • Posts using the word ‘community’ also jumped in the same month, by 82%

Interest in local retailers was also boosted by many of the high street’s big brands struggling to cope with demand. A good example here was Ocado, which was forced at one point in March to suspend all access to its website.

Opening up new opportunities

With communities discovering the true value of local providers and building new loyalties, the challenge for small independents now is to help keep this momentum going. 

They’ve got a lot to work with, including:

  • The local option for last mile delivery – from curb side pickup to drive-through and services like Deliveroo, 65% of convenience stores now offer home delivery (up from 10% in 2019)

  • Going digital and selling local – from brewers to flower growers, there are many stories of local artisan producers embracing digital channels to engage with local communities

Good news for local retailers

Setting a new standard

The good news for local retailers is that people are responding to their efforts:

Final thoughts and recommendations

What next for local retailers? The time certainly seems right for winning the hearts and minds of shoppers, but what practical steps can be taken to achieve this end? Here are three of our more immediate suggestions:

  • Lead first with safety – the true power of local is convenience, particularly for less mobile shoppers, but only if they feel safe. The good news here is that there’s plenty of information out there on the topic, from government guidelines to industry best practice

  • Set yourself up to accept online payments – websites don’t have to be expensively designed to have an impact, and instead can start with a simple list of products and order forms. Taking payments is also a far easier process these days

  • Make the in-store experience unique – small retailers aren’t big corporates and so have nothing stopping them from getting creative. Think for example QR codes that let people browse while they’re waiting, queuing technology that alerts people when they can enter, and interactive fun for the kids while social distancing


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