the spirit of independence

Thoughts on independent retail

My husband and I have been running Scape Interiors West Ltd in Bournemouth for 11 years. Through all the ups and downs, we have made mistakes and also learned quite a few important lessons from running our own business. I would like to share with you my thoughts over independent retail.

1.  The retail industry suffers from a lack of young talented people.

Retail has been going through tough dramatic changes over the years, because of the rise of online shopping and the future of 3D printing. A lot of retail stores have turned into showrooms for customers who come in for a viewing and then purchase elsewhere online for a lower price. There are fears that the high street could disappear in the future.

Because of this, owners of the independent retail businesses are often reluctant to see their offspring committing to a life of working in the retail industry. Quite a few local shops closed their door, partly because owners’ adult children were unwilling to take over the business. Their children would rather be anything else but the owner of a retail business. I don’t know how many cases like this are happening across the country.

Sadly, Bournemouth university is planning to close its retail management course; the title of a retail store manager probably holds less appeal for the younger generation.

Yet in my opinion, there will always be a need for bricks and mortar stores,  most of us love the good old retail therapy, love the experience of going out shopping with friends. Due to diversity of the tasks in a retail environment, working in a small independent retail business offers great opportunities for a young person who wants to improve his / her sales and marketing skills, negotiation skill, visual merchandising skill, management skill and entrepreneur skill. We have provided work placement training for many students during the last 7 years and it has been an amazing experience to grow with them.

2. The independent business owners often suffer from a lack of knowledge on management, finance, marketing,  and fundamentally, a lack of time.

Work hours in retail are very long, and even longer near Christmas. I remember I once worked for a consecutive 28 days before Christmas due to staff illness. Retail is demanding. To keep the store and the website up and running and both taking good orders,  you need the stamina of a bull and you need a team.

Most of the independent business owners don’t graduate from a business school. Due to a lack of knowledge on time management and staff management, we often try to take on as much as responsibility as possible, resulting in a complete physical burnout. We can spend every day firefighting every single urgent task every day, we will end up losing sight of the big picture and forget to focus on the long term, focus on what is really important for us. Another friend of mine was running 10 shops across the UK, and she suffered a heart attack due to the extremely long hours of driving across the country to visit each store. She had no time for herself, and no time for her three year old son. Her son decided to take matters into his own hand and went for a stroll down to the Bournemouth beach on his own, and thank goodness someone spotted him on his own on the beach and called the police. At the end of day, what is our priority in life, this is a question we have all got to ask ourselves, before we allocate our time and resources accordingly.

Marketing is essential to grow our business, yet a lot of us leave it at the bottom of ” to-do” list. Digital marketing evolves so quickly these days that it is essential to keep ourselves updated with the latest change from Facebook, Instagram etc. There are government funded courses and workshops available for business owners, but we are often too busy to attend them. The same applies to the management and finance aspect of the business. One friend of mine opened a lovely gift shop but she had no idea on how to manage her budget, she didn’t even know what was her break even figure. Turnover is vanity, profit is sanity; she soon ran into cash flow problems and had to close the door.

So, independent business owners, please try to take time away from the business, grab as much funded opportunity as you can to train yourself and your staff members. Remember that old saying, “If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first four hours sharpening the axe”. I was fortunate enough to win a scholarship to attend the best retail management course in the UK from Said Business school from Oxford University, and that experience has transformed my thinking fundamentally about my business and myself.

3. Not enough awareness of the importance of business network and local community involvement

It has taken me many years to realize that a good supporting business network is very important for a business. Being a very introverted person, I used to always shy away from business network meetings. It sounds a bit childish, but many years ago before I went to a seminar, I would hide in the loo until the seminar started, so I didn’t have to do the small talk with the other business owners sitting next to me. However, minding our own business will not bring us the unforeseen growth opportunities from networking with other businesses and getting involved with local communities. They also have provided us with a lot of practical advice and vital support during times of trouble, too. I was taken back by how kind and helpful some of the other business owners were when we had problems with our website.

So stay rooted in your local communities and keep regular touch with your business network! This is an area independent retailers could do a lot better than the big national stores! If you are too shy, send forth your extroverted partner to the networking meetings 🙂

4. Thinking small, playing it safe is not safe at all.
Word of mouth is a fantastic marketing tool, but if you only rely on word of mouth, chances are that it will take you a longer time to grow your business. Playing it safe and cutting overheads will help with the cash flow, but not willing to spend time and / or money on the important things such as working on the website, marketing, training, taking calculated risks on product design and innovation, eventually see the business stagnating. Taking no risk is taking the biggest risk.

5. A lack of awareness of the importance of branding and PR

The small businesses that have made into big businesses are fully aware of the importance of branding and know well how to attract press attention on a shoestring budget. The owner of Green & Black organic chocolate, the owner of The White company have got journalist background and knows to how to write the perfect pitch to the press. The owner of Ted Baker is known for his gorilla marketing skills.

We have no journalist background or connections with the press. I was doing my postgraduate studies on biology and had no idea whatsoever on writing a press release. Pitching to the press and attracting their attention seems a daunting task, yet it is essential to grow your brand even with a very limited budget, so start now, start today, think creatively.

6. The threat of rent increase, limited car parking, road works…
Having a bricks and mortar business means we are vulnerable from the outrageous rent increase demand from the landlord, and we have little control over the overcrowded local car park,  road works or poor weather…..We were victims of all the factors mentioned above. We were located in a beautiful grade II listed Victorian arcade. However, the glass roof was in a state of bad repairs and scaffolding was up outside the shops for almost a year. For years, our local car park has been flooded with the cars from headquarter staff from a national company,and the council has offered little help in resolving the issue.

Oh yes, let’s not forget about rent review! We spent one and a half year negotiation the rent with the landlord of one of our stores. The landlord initially asked for a 75 percent rent increase and eventually settled down to 40 percent, which was still too much for us. We had to ask for the help from a chartered surveyor. I still remember vividly the countless amount of phone calls and emails we made, the threatening letters full of legal jargons from the landlord arriving one after another in the post.We have been forced to exercise the break clause and vacate that shop, but the ex-landlord is still chasing up for the rent review two years ago, threatening us with more Calderbank letters and refusing to hand back our rent deposit!

On another note, most of us don’t even know that we could apply for business rate rebate if the road works affect the business. Independent businesses need support from the government to protect them from outrageous rent demands from the landlord, from car parking problems, road works…..

On the other hand, this has also highlighted the importance of improving our E-commerce website, because this is something we can control and something which has much bigger growth potential than a physical store. E-commerce will always be a working progress for every one, and a lot of independent business owners often give up on their websites after their first few attempts. It took us three months this year to give the website an overhaul, it was almost as hard as giving birth to a baby, and 5 months later, we are seeing the internet orders picking up. By all means, do focus on your E-commerce website, even if it means you have to close one of your stores so you can have more time and energy dedicated to your website.

Final Word

Retail is very hard. We could really do with more support from the government, from the local councils and universities, from the shoppers who don’t want to see a cloned high street. Ironically, some of the public funding have been denied to retail industries, because of government’s concerns over the future prospect of the retail industry.

Despite all the challenges, all the headaches, I do believe there is a wonderful future for independent retail, for all the independent retail owners like us. We might lack a lot of resources, but we don’t lack a fighting spirit. We are fighting relentlessly to make our way ahead, It is our loyal customers who come back to us year after year, it is you guys who keep us going!

Love Scape xxx

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