The New Challenges of Independent Retailers — and How to Overcome Them (a Chat with Alan Hawkins)

Meet Alan Hawkins, CEO of the British Independent Retailers Association (bira). As the UK’s largest independent retail network, bira provides support, information, and inspiration to over 6,500 independent retailers in the UK.

As bira’s CEO, Alan has a firm grasp of the retail landscape in the UK and beyond. We recently caught up with him and chatted about the challenges facing independents today and what retailers can do to thrive in the coming years.

Read on to find out what he has to say.

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Traditional vs. modern retail challenges

According to Alan, if you had asked him about retail’s biggest challenges five years ago, he would have talked about things like rent and rate costs, wages, and succession.

And while these things still exist, retailers today are facing much bigger challenges. These include:

Keeping up with evolving consumer behaviors brought about by technology

“Technology is having a massive effect on consumer behavior,” says Alan. “Shoppers are so well-informed now. They can get information about a product online, so they know what it does and how much it costs. And with ecommerce, consumers can order it from their home and have it delivered to wherever they want.”

“There’s also social media, which can influence what consumers buy and what their friends think they should buy. All that technological challenge is making it much harder for an independent retailer to do what they’re used to doing.”

You’re no longer just competing with other retailers

Another massive change is that the big players in the industry aren’t really retailers, he says.

“I’m talking about the Amazons of this world. These are companies that understand data and consumer spending patterns. They understand how to distribute a product. But they’re not retailers [in the traditional sense].”

“So that’s probably the biggest challenge that all retailers are facing. They’ve got to find some way of taking on this challenge using technology to create new markets for themselves.”

How can independents stay competitive?

Clearly, the retail landscape has changed quite a bit over the last few years. In order to stay competitive, Alan says independent retailers should embrace their unique strengths and use them to their advantage.

Here are some ideas:

Be nimble and act quickly

“Larger retailers have to wait for the head office and say ‘We can change’ or ‘Yes, we can move that there’ or ‘We can stop stocking that.’ So the independents can always have a better speed of reaction to changing market forces. You’re normally much faster if you’re an independent. That’s their number one benefit I think — the speed of reaction.”

Use the quality of your services to set yourself apart

Another big strength of independent retailers, according to Alan, is the quality of service that they provide.

“I think there’s a massive difference in dealing with service levels led by an owner who is actually day-to-day involved with his business. I think independents are often family-owned. Every sale is really personal because it’s part of their livelihood. So I think the quality of service in independents is superb and that’s one of their main selling points.”

Embrace localism

“There’s a movement among consumers to love localism at the moment,” adds Alan.

“I think consumers understand real localism versus PLC localism. Some people pretend they’re a friend on the high street, but a real local business owner is the ones who’s been there for a long time and spends their money locally. Consumers see the owner having a meal in the same restaurant as they do in the evening, and that sort of thing.”

“People want to support their local businesses, so this is an area where independents are picking up on a ground at the moment. People want to be supporting their local communities more than a China company or companies across the seas. I think that will help them.”

Be inventive and offer variety

Independent retailers can be more inventive, and they can add variety to the high street, points out Alan. And this is something they can use to their advantage.

“Every high street is different. Every town is different. Independent retailers react to all those nuances, and you’ve got much more variety and inventiveness out of these stores.”

“Almost to the extent where the independents will have a future and I’m sure the Amazons of the world will have a future. It’s probably the midsize chains that are having the biggest problems because they don’t have the advantages of the independents and they haven’t got the size of the big players.”

Examples of independent retailers that are thriving

When asked about the stores that are doing well, Alan says that the retailers who are thriving are the ones doing one (or more) of these things:

  • Stocking in-depth
  • Creating exclusivity
  • Creating new or unique experiences

Here are a few examples:

The menswear retailer that specialises in his market and offers unparalleled depth of range

“There’s Coe’s in Ipswich, and I can’t think of any place where you can go as a male purchaser of clothing that would be better,” shares Alan.

“His point of difference is his stock ranges.”

Alan continues, “I think sometimes he stocks things that he knows he won’t actually sell, but it’s a statement they make. So for example, if you’re looking for a special suit to wear to a meeting, black tie and all that, he will have it.”

“I’m a big man and I can get into one of the legs of the largest trousers he stocks. But on the other hand, you could put a four-year-old boy in the smallest size he sells. He makes himself an absolute specialist in range and depth of range.”

The childrenswear retailer that sells aspirational merchandise

“Then there’s Rachel Riley who’s gone the other way and become rather a specialist and is creating a range you won’t see anybody else wearing. She was blessed to get the Queen’s grandson wearing her outfits and trainers and everybody has to be seen in those now. So she’s going down the exclusive side of making it different.”

The department and home retailer that delivers unique shopping experiences

“There’s also Barkers, and they’re in the North of England. They came on a study tour with us where we went to the US and saw what the department stores there are doing.”

“He [the owner] saw some of the ideas there and came back and built a new 10,000-15,000 square foot department on the back of his existing store, built on the ideas he’d seen abroad. He brought the best of what he could see in the States and came back to create a new theatre for his customers.”

Your turn

Are you an independent retailer? What are some of your strategies for staying competitive?

About Francesca Nicasio

Francesca Nicasio is Vend's Retail Expert and Content Strategist. She writes about trends, tips, and other cool things that enable retailers to increase sales, serve customers better, and be more awesome overall. She's also the author of Retail Survival of the Fittest, a free eBook to help retailers future-proof their stores. Connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, or Google+.

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