We’ve been thinking about small retail shops, independent retailers, and how they can make the most of e-commerce.

I think it started with us talking internally, about the idea that small independent businesses are obviously having a pretty rough ride in 2020. Everything about what’s happening in the world doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. And our conversations internally started working around the idea of “Okay, well, what could we do to best help support an independent retailer to make sure that they’re still here a year from now”. As we were talking about this we were considering what might be the limiting factors. The specific issues and opportunities that independent retailers might encounter in the next 12 months.

As part of that, we’ve tried our best to figure out what those obstacles and opportunities might be. And interestingly enough, the conversation we had invariably ended up with me going out and speaking to an independent retailer in town. Going direct to find out from their point of view, what it is that they’re struggling with?

What Random Shop Did I Choose?

I went to an independent wine cellar shop. To be honest, it feels like there are less and less independent shops in the grand scheme of things. But actually, those that do exist, they’re trying to do something very specific. And from the conversation I had, which was really interesting, the idea of them opening a retail store in the first place, was to give somebody an experiential buying experience.

It’s supposed to be about the human touch, the feeling that human-to-human contact brings. That’s really important to them. The second thing was most of them don’t want to become national e-commerce businesses. That’s not why they set these businesses up. It’s not why they created a small independent retailer in a town or a village or wherever it might be.

I started to think more about the experiential and unique approach independent retailers focus on. We want to try and understand the best way to support an independent retailer right now. As a customer, going in and buying a bottle of wine from them, rather than just picking it up as part of your online Sainsbury shop can make a huge difference to them.

Also, if you like a shop and you have been a customer of theirs before, chances are you want them to still be there at the end of all this. That’s what’s really important for all businesses right now, survival.

So we started talking about the idea of localising e-commerce. And I think that’s where there are lots of opportunities. Independent retailers have this idea that they want to stay independent, small, local, they just want to fulfill what they set out to achieve. To create a local independent retail store to serve the local community.

Now, we’re not telling people that they should or shouldn’t try to go international or become the next Amazon of wine selling or anything like that. Those businesses already exist. They’re pretty well established. And they’re pushing pretty hard.

But the unfortunate reality is that your small community have options. Those great people that you’ve met, served and given a great experiential service to over the years, they now have the option to go online and buy directly from online wine merchants, supermarkets, or Amazon.

So we’ve been looking at the idea of localising e-commerce. How can independent retailers create e-commerce offers that are just for one or two specific postcodes? In a local area where an independent retailer doesn’t even need to get a third party delivery service involved, he or she could actually deliver at the end of their day on the way home. It’s super-localised, and it’s within the 10-minute radius of the business in the first place. And I think that’s where interesting opportunities lie.

What’s Stopped Independent Retailers from Moving into E-Commerce in the Past?

I think it’s the idea that it’s this huge thing. A lot of businesses, and again, the ones that we’ve spoken to recently have been talking to us about this idea of “no, we wanted to create that one-to-one feel in our business”. Or “we wanted to give a service that was above and beyond reading a bit of blurb on a website about a particular wine or about a particular product”.

It’s an interesting point because, in its own right, that drives the decision making for the business. It’s their WHY – at the centre of everything they do.

The second thing is that personal one-to-one touch. It’s really important for most independent retails. That kind of experience makes customers feel special and also dictates a higher price point.

Let’s be honest, somebody who’s running a wine business, for example, out of a warehouse and just has a website doesn’t have the same costs and overheads, as somebody who’s running a retail store and who’s also giving that one-to-one experience.

They want to take their time to help figure out what that client is really looking for. Find out what they like and what they don’t like. Then to be able to suggest a product that is far more suited. It’s a better experience for everyone involved. I think that’s really the key to it.

Independent retailers don’t necessarily want to get into e-commerce. They don’t want to become huge online businesses with little to no personal touch. But at the same time, I think it’s really important right now. With everything that we’ve gone through so far this year, and seeing what’s happening across the UK. Lockdowns, localised restrictions, and ultimately some people no longer wanting to visit town centres or busy places.

Is There A Step Between E-Commerce and Bricks and Mortar Only?

We want to help them figure out a way to fill the gap between what they usually do in their retail premises, and what they can do right now to help support those same customers. What if an independent retailer, that you already have a relationship with, offered you the opportunity to have a quick 15-minute chat to discuss which wine suits your needs?

You could still have that personal 1-2-1 feel (albeit it online) and then you could purchase that wine, and it would be delivered to your house. And it’s all within the local area. That to me continues the independent retailers’ goals of being an experiential service. It also gives customers a chance to continue to support the retailer. That’s what we really want to encourage. We all need to find a way to support small businesses, because otherwise they simply won’t be there in the future.

The high street has had a hard enough time over the last five to ten years as is. 2020 is simply exacerbating that. Independent retailers want to try and find that balance between still offering a high quality of service for existing customers, and at the same time, have that little bit of flexibility to be able to have a localised e-commerce option, with free delivery to the local area, and continue to be able to build that relationship with their customers.

What Are The First Steps That Independent Retailers Can Take to Localise E-Commerce?

Today, there are systems like Squarespace, for example, that are super easy and user-friendly. They allow anyone to be able to knock up a website, add products, be able to accept payments.

Start by being clear that you only deliver to these postcodes, for example. It’s a great way for you to be able to look out for those local customers by doing something really specifically for them.

The second thing to remember is you’re not trying to go from zero to everything. And this is key. If you’ve got a couple of hundred products in your shop, it’s massively time-consuming to get all of those products up onto your website so that people can pick and choose whatever they might want.

Testing Localised E-Commerce

A better way to test localised e-commerce would be to create something pretty simple. So for example, have a wine of the week. That’s a pretty easy way of doing something. It’s not a subscription-based service (but it could become one). You just simply present one product each week and make that available for purchase on your website.

If you think about it, as time goes by there’s nothing stopping you from leaving that product on the website. Once it’s online, it’s done and available in the future. But you don’t have the time-consuming effort of trying to put 200 products online, and people trying to figure out what all 200 products are. Especially before you know if people will buy online in the first place.

Another way would be to, for example, create the mixed case of six, “try these new reds, we’d love to hear your feedback”. When I started talking to my local independent wine retailer, I realised that there’s a real sense of wanting to build a community around their products, around the people who like and appreciate them. Around the people who want to discover new things.

Building and Nurturing your Community Through Localised E-Commerce

And that got me thinking. Well, actually, why not do a wine of the week, and follow it up with “all deliveries will be made on Wednesdays”. And then on Thursday evenings, we will do a 30-minute Virtual Wine Tasting session on Zoom. The independent retailers can talk about the wine, can explain the flavours, pairings, etc. Everyone tastes it together. It’s social and community-focused.

We know it’s not perfect. But right now, it’s a great opportunity and a great way for small businesses to create that touchpoint to keep customers involved in their community.

At the same time, recording that content will allow independent retailers to start using their content for repurposing onto social media, or on their website. It can be used to promote future events or to simply help sell that particular wine.

Most importantly, doing things slowly, bit by bit, gives you a feel for whether this works or not. For a small independent retailer, if 10 to 15 people buy online each week, who wouldn’t necessarily go into the shops right now, because of the way the world is, that’s an extra 15 sales. That could mean a lot.

It’s not just the sales and the bottom line. You’re also getting those people to continue to be part of your community. And now they’re getting used to being able to buy from you online. That presents opportunities to start creating new offers or subscription models, whatever it might be in the future.

To start with, it’s just a slow additional income stream, which is a really useful thing to have. Those extra sales every week could make a huge difference to the bottom line at the end of the month. But it could create opportunities that haven’t even crossed your mind yet.

Key Actions for Independent Retailers to Take

I think most independent retailers know their customers especially well. Running their business day-to-day, they have that one-to-one contact. Create what you think will work best for your customers.

Something that’s really important if you’re an independent retailer today is collecting email addresses. Right now, even in-store, you should make it super simple at checkout, just say to people “would you like to be added to our newsletter list to receive weekly/monthly offers?”

This is a simple step towards building your community. The community isn’t just built in the ether around your business, it comes from you bringing them together. And I think these small actions are super simple to implement. We’re MailChimp partners, we love MailChimp. It’s super easy, it’s free, you can sign up and simply create a mail list.

That’ll allow you to eventually send out emails with new products and new offers. Or if you do go down the e-commerce route, the ability to send everyone who’s already bought from you an easy to visit website page where they can buy something online.

It’s about making the journey easy for them. Keep it simple for yourself internally, it shouldn’t be overly complicated. Like I said, Don’t try to “e-commerce” every single thing that’s in your shop. It’s just not going to work. And it’s too time-consuming.

Validating the idea is so important. We want to push a simple MVP (Minimum Viable Product) out to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, in the most simple, cost-effective, time-effective way possible. That will allow us to see whether or not it’s of interest.

If you send that out to your email list of 50-500 customers (share on your social media profiles and in local town groups) and nobody wants to buy online, they only want to come in to be able to browse, then fine. That’s just the way it is, unfortunately.

But if you can test that and people go “YES, I do want to support, yes I do like buying from you online, yes, I will buy because it’s free delivery to my local area”, that gives you the incentive to say this is worth pursuing. Then it becomes worth growing.

At that point, you can decide whether or not it’s worth investing more time, or money, in e-commerce for independent retailers. Then you can look at a third party to help you build on it.

If you want to talk about how your independent retail shop can localise e-commerce, then book a free consultation with the team at Social INK. We’ll take the time to talk to you about where you are and where you need to be to start testing online for your community.

Chris Bruno
Chris Bruno

Chris, founder and CEO of Social INK, has devised and consulted on more digital marketing and social media marketing campaigns than you can shake a stick at. He’s also got a bit of a thing for online advertising and social media advertising.