Wandering the harbour towns and villages of Cornwall last week provided some more retail food for thought. Yes, we picked the week with all the rain to go on holiday, but at least it presented a good excuse to duck into shops and browse.
What surprised me most comparing these small towns with the bigger retail centres of the south-east was the number of independent stores. That includes the obvious tourist-facing craft, fudge and souvenir shops. What really caught my eye, though, were the regional and local fashion chains, independent bookshops and other unfamiliar retail brands who seemed to be doing well (or at least surviving). By comparison, many of the national chain outlets (even those who pride themselves on their surf-dude brands) looked corporate and tired.
Of course, there are some structural reasons why this layer of independent retail might be doing well in Cornwall. Some of the harbour towns are too small to have hit the radar for the big-boys.
More than that, however, there is also some really good retailing being done. Service with a smile (remember that?), interesting ranges of product and a clear effort to build a local customer community as well as selling to the transient tourists.
I worry, though. In a tough economy, just being a good traditional retailer may not be enough. A properly integrated e-commerce channel will be a must-do. That’s not only important for your local customers but also to maintain a relationship with those tourists when they get home.The value of building a relationship with every customer, which we’ve been talking about here at Moving Tribes, is just as critical to these businesses as to national chains.
Delivering that kind of end to end retail experience, beyond the walls of the store, is a huge challenge for a small business. Checking up on some of my favourite of these small stores once I got home, I have found semi-transactional and frankly half-baked websites, limited social network engagement and no evidence of any real CRM effort.
And that’s not a surprise. Where do you turn, as a small retail business, for this kind of support? There are a million people who will build you a website, but few who understand why you are doing it and how to integrate it with your store. There are even fewer who understand retail CRM – even the leading retail textbooks don’t go much beyond “why not build a spreadsheet listing your customers and send them emails?”.
Independent retailers and small chains have attracted a lot of attention this year, as a key component of the re-invention and rejuvenation of our high streets and also because they play a big role in re-energising our wider economy. I can’t help feeling, though, that as much as we invest in cheaper parking and more attractive high streets (which we certainly should), if we allow these small business to try to survive with such limited support in digital retailing and customer marketing, we are sending them onto a battlefield tilted in favour of the big guys.
Helping small retailers with these new challenges is both a business opportunity and a benefit to our wider society. Are you ready to get involved?