How Technology Is Empowering Independent Brands And Bringing The UK High Street Back To Life

June 13, 2022  |  By Jeff Kolovson and Andrew Goodacre

Co-authored by Bira CEO, Andrew Goodacre and Faire co-founder and COO, Jeff Kolovson

The tide of digital transformation has swept the worldwide retail sector. And while the meteoric rise of e-commerce threatened to destroy the brick-and-mortar experience, independent retail in the UK is stronger and better positioned for success than ever before. Spurred on by tech, high street is witnessing a renaissance as retailers embrace technology to stock faster and smarter, while emerging brands leverage the power of independent brick-and-mortar retail as a sales channel of high consumer influence.

Blending ‘physical’ and ‘digital’ 

Notions that the digitalisation of traditional retail models will threaten the integrity of independent retail shops have been disproven as savvy retailers adopt omnichannel strategies to better compete. They have demonstrated, despite recent challenges, high appetite and understanding of how to leverage technology to attract consumers back into their stores. This shift in strategy has opened the opportunity for independent retailers to reach customers no matter where they shop – as well as reach new digitally native audiences. Research from Bira, the British Independent Retailers Association, has shown that over the past two years, over half of small businesses have seen their income grow by more than 5% due to better use of technology.

Beyond expanding customer reach, independent retailers are also increasingly adopting buying and business management tools to better compete on curation and sourcing. These tools empower independent retailers to operate more efficiently, sourcing unique brands from around the world faster and more cost-effectively. Access to these tools, which can reduce the cost of building digital backend infrastructure for payments, sourcing, and marketing, bridges the line between ‘physical’ and ‘digital’ and levels the playing field for small businesses. 

An increase in omnichannel buying strategies is further supported by a shift away from in-person trade shows as the primary method of sourcing inventory. A survey conducted earlier this year by Faire, the largest global B2B online retail marketplace, revealed that 50% of independent retailers plan to purchase more via online marketplaces this year, and over 50% plan to purchase less via in-person trade shows. Edinburgh-based handmade home goods and apparel brand, Bohemia Design, now stocked in nearly 1,000 independent retailers on Faire, leveraged the platform’s business solutions to expand their reach. “The cost of exhibiting at trade fairs, particularly internationally, and the inability to travel over the past couple of years has meant that online tools like Faire have become a vital avenue for us to showcase our goods to the widest possible audience,” said founder and owner Jenny Lockton.

Competing on curation 

Independent retailers have long competed on their ability to curate and establish relationships with their customers, creating personalised in-store shopping experiences that set their stores apart from the mainstream products found in retail chains. Consumers identify with local shop owners not only as proprietors, but as curators, trendsetters, and culture carriers. This trend only accelerated during the pandemic, with consumers choosing to support and shop from local retailers over larger players in the market. In fact, research from Bira revealed that 60% of shoppers intend to shop more from independent retailers in the future. 

This close-knit community connection combined with leveraging new online sales strategies creates a compelling multichannel opportunity for brands looking to expand their consumer reach. As a result, emerging and established brands alike are utilising the attractive sales channel that independent retail offers. Especially as costs and complexities rise for businesses solely focused on B2C, local shops and independent retailers are proving to be an effective entry point for brands to bring their diverse and value-driven products to new frontiers and markets. 

London-based footwear accessories brand, AfroPop Socks, expanded their reach by leveraging powerful online tools like Faire. “Since joining Faire we have been able to raise more awareness by accessing local retailers, which has provided us the opportunity to expand our existing customer base in the UK,” said founder and owner Isaac Prempeh. 

It is evident that if independent retailers and high street brands strike the right balance, there is high potential for technology to complement, rather than compete with, traditional retail. The future of independent retail in the UK and beyond looks bright – and depicts a world in which independent retail plays a key role in shaping the digital and physical economy.

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