James Pinchbeck: The mighty independent retailer

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It is often easy to get along with the pre-conception that major retailers are taking over the high street and shaping our buying decisions and behaviours.

Their mighty buying power and unrivalled distribution channels seem to be relentlessly changing the face of our high streets forever.

Perhaps though, it is time to look at it from a different perspective and consider the mighty strength and even advantage that the independent retailers have to offer.

For me, one of the first key marketing advantages of any independent business is their physical location and presence. The mere fact that they are independent often means that they have a single outlet, which evokes a sense of uniqueness, unlike the homogenised, off-the-shelf outlet of yet another ubiquitous plc retailer chain.

Independent outlets in and around Lincoln often benefit from fellow independents nearby, which coupled with historical buildings or other aspects of interest, helps create further dimensions to the retail experience.

The second often overlooked and sometimes forgotten advantage is the independents’ unique ability to build a direct and meaningful relationship with their customers.

This is in stark contrast to the faceless retail chains that rely on the use of technology and data capture to ‘know’ their customers.

The independent has no need for supposed loyalty schemes and incentives or costly marketing to really know and understand their customers buying behaviours, trends and needs. They live and experience it everyday.

This neatly leads me onto the third advantage; flexibility and the ability to respond to market conditions and needs of the customer. The phrases ‘computer says no’ or ‘I’ll have to ask my manager or head office’ must be scarcely heard by the independent customer.

With decision making often limited to one or two people, the independent outlet is undoubtedly able to be more responsive to both individual customer’s needs and market changes – much in contrast to the larger corporate players.

Having highlighted some of the advantages, I can perhaps be forgiven for raising areas, especially in the current climate, that are probably not given much attention, not least for the success and sustainability of our independent shops.

Whilst I have never run a retail outlet, I have supplied some over the years and even worked on the development of a couple, mainly in clothing and jewellery retail.

In my opinion, the biggest challenge for any retailer is simply getting the footfall and people through the door. As such, I am still amazed at how many still rely on just having a window display and their name above the door to attract custom.

Equally alarming is the level of on-going marketing given to those customers that do venture in and purchase.

Furthermore, it amazes me, even more so with the development of the World Wide Web, how few retailers actually seek to build on–going relationships with their customers.

There must be many a sale missed and profit lost from not capturing customer contact details and then keeping these customers informed of products or events of interest to them.

It has also been increasingly easy to use a website as a relatively low cost retail extension with the benefits of being able to reach not only existing customers but also those further afield.

Much of this can be done at the quieter times in the week or on those days when bad weather deters even the most determined customer.

Finishing on a lighter note, perhaps watching an episode of Open All Hours might serve to illustrate some good old fashioned retail techniques perhaps we see less of or have forgotten today – who knows?