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How your business can take advantage of the shop small movement this Christmas

With high street shopping in its traditional form less accessible for many people this year, there are still ways for businesses to take advantage of a growing desire to shop small and support independent retailers. 

With a nationwide lockdown in effect until 2 December, and then limitations on movement in place thereafter, high streets are quieter than in previous years. However, a number of retailers throughout the UK are using creative techniques to ensure consumers don’t have to rely on big chains. 

The #ShopSmall hashtag takes over 

A woman works on Christmas decorations in a bright workshop
Small businesses across the UK have been preparing for the festive season

In recent weeks, numerous hashtags have popped up across social media in a bid to get consumers to spend their pennies in small, local and independent businesses. 

Up and down the country, smaller enterprises have transformed themselves into Santa’s Grottos as each prepare for the #ShopSmall festive rush. We asked a handful of them what was being done to do things differently this year. 

Small Business Saturday UK – Saturday 5 December 

Having started off in the US back in 2010, and launched in the UK by Michelle Ovens in 2013, Small Business Saturday is a celebration of independent businesses – those without the financial firepower for big advertising campaigns or slick online shopping experiences. 

Text graphic saying '59 per cent of Brits say they now support small businesses more than previously'

Every year thousands of businesses register to take part, capitalising on marketing support and incentives offered by the likes of American Express, the campaign’s principle supporter from the start, if consumers shop with participating retailers. 

Small businesses can still register before 5 December to join the UK’s biggest celebration of all shops mini yet mighty. With free advertising, a marketing pack and the chance to feature on the campaign’s popular social business channels, reaching customers at this competitive time of year is made just that little bit easier.  

Last year, it’s estimated that over £800m was spent by over 17m customers on Small Business Saturday and, although there may be fewer face-to-face exchanges, there’s still plenty of opportunity for virtual markets. 

Michelle Ovens smiles at the camera
Michelle Ovens says that Small Business Saturday is more important than ever

“This year, with the impact of coronavirus and another lockdown, Small Business Saturday’s mission has never been more important,” said Michelle Ovens, director of Small Business Saturday UK, “Small Business Saturday is a key moment to shine a spotlight on small businesses and the important contribution they make to our nation. This year, we are encouraging people to show their support not just on Small Business Saturday itself but in the coming weeks, months and beyond. 

“Small businesses have played a particularly invaluable role in communities this year,” she continued, adding that “59 per cent of Brits say they now support small businesses more than previously, according to research we did with American Express.”  

The online market 

Christmas markets are usually one of the most effective sales channels for small businesses during the festive period. However, with lockdown and social distancing making the usual stall browsing experience almost impossible, many shopping events have moved online. 

We spoke with Daisy and Liv Tinker, the co-founders of A South London Makers Marketabout how they switched their in-person shopping experience to a highly successful virtual one. “Running a Christmas shopping experience in 2020 is completely different to 2019. For starters, we were able to host a real-life event in 2019. This year, because of lockdown, our Christmas event has gone online. 

An Asian woman in a white face mask holds up a small blackboard saying 'Open Again'
Joining a virtual market such as A South London Makers Market helps spread the word

Although online, the Makers Market works in a similar way to a traditional shopping experience. Daisy and Liv advertise the market days, promote the small businesses that will be there with personalised Instagram posts and, on market day itself, small businesses showcase wares via virtual stallsConsumers are encouraged to buy from the stall owners via individual websites – or through direct message or email – and then share their experience via social media.  

A South London Makers Market has been more successful than we ever could have imagined. It really feels like the tide is turning, and more than ever consumers are shopping with indie makers this Christmas,the sisters said, adding that the sweeping success has encouraged them to hold virtual shopping events into the future. We’re currently fully booked for the rest of the year, but we’ll be releasing 2021 dates soon via our business Instagram page. Once applications are open, we take them via our the South London Makers Market website. 

Spread the (social media) love 

Love it or loathe it, social media is nonetheless a powerful tool when it comes to spreading the word about your small business.  

In the week up to 17 November, the #ShopSmall hashtag was used over 7,000 times on Twitter in the UK alone, with the potential of reaching over 9.3m consumers. It’s no surprise that small business owners are jumping on the trend to drive up social media exposure. Each year, Small Business Saturday UK’s #SmallBizSatUK hashtag reaches the number one spot on the trending charts as small businesses and consumers alike share their wares and purchases.    

Flatlay of products sold by The Ecologik intertwined with leaves
Marion Merle has created an online sustainable shop

Marion Merle, founder of sustainable lifestyle brand The Ecologik, credits social media as being one of the main driving forces behind her six month-old company. “Social media is huge,” she said, “especially Instagram. It’s my number one way of communicating and engaging with my audience.” Social media, Marion believes, is one of the greatest tools for small businesses as it separates them from larger businesses. “When I speak in my Instagram Stories, customers see me – the one-woman band working a 9-5 job who launched an online eco store in parallel because she’s passionate about sustainability. It helps them see the person behind it and makes me approachable.”  

Marion also pointed out that social media isn’t just about advertising, but also creating a personalised shopping experience. “People ask questions,” she stated, “I make sure to reply promptly and even send pictures of products. I made a sale last week like this; someone asked about a reusable travel cup and whether it was leak-proof. I shared a video with her where I did a demo and I received her order shortly after. This is why people shop from small businesses – we really go the extra mile.” 

It’s not just sales, but logistics that Marion uses social media for. “Thanks to Facebook, I’m also able to geolocalise in a radius around my office to offer free, contactless home delivery.” 

A young woman shops online from a yellow sofa
Promoting your small business online can be a great way to attract customers

Tara Deboys, administration manager at independent lifestyle shop Elm, confirmed that social media has been a great tool for keeping the brand alive during both lockdowns. We have just continued to use social media to our advantage,” she said, regularly informing the brand’s 18,000 Instagram followers with stock updates, giveaways and Stories that link consumers directly to specific products. Giveaways and consistent engagement have kept our brand as relevant as ever, Tara continued. “We will advertise via social media as we always have done into Christmas as it seems to work in our favour.” 

Daisy and Liv went one step further and created the #ShopSmallSpreadJoy hashtag, which they continue to use across all their social media posts. “The #ShopSmallSpreadJoy campaign is our simple way to encourage people to think twice about where they’re spending their money this Christmas. Shopping small gives a double whammy of joy – you not only help a small business thrive, you get a beautiful, unique, potentially personalised product that a loved one will be excited to receive. 

Create a Christmas ad  

Huge, multi-national companies love a Christmas advert. Months in the making, costing millions of pounds and designed to tug at your heartstrings in every way, these adverts have become a stalwart of the festive period, with the John Lewis ad signalling a start of Christmas shopping for many.  

However, small businesses have started taking on bigger retailers at their own game. You may remember a heart-warming advert from Hafod Hardware which went viral for all the right reasons in 2019. Costing a mere £100, it racked up 2.7m views on YouTube and put Haford Hardware, a small high street shop in a Welsh town of 2,000 people, squarely on the map. 

This year, we caught up with Sarah Binns, co-founder of Barnes + Binns General Store in Brighton, whose shoestring Christmas ad has raised many a smile. Click though below to watch the one-minute advert.

Co-founders Sarah Binns and Rachel Barnes sit at a table in their shop
Co-founder Sarah Binns and Rachel Barnes have created a budget Christmas advert

We actually had the ad last year,” said Sarah, “a friend of Rachel (Barnes, co-founder) contacted us as they were working for a marketing agency called Hell Yeah! They created it and made it available to small independent businesses for 99p on eBay and then we just put our branding at the end.”  

Although the response to the advert in 2019 was good, the enterprising co-founders decided to recycle the content for their growing social media base. The response last year was good,” Sarah continued, but this year even more so, partly I think because it’s such a strong message at the moment. Walso have more followers, likes and shares on Instagram and Facebook. With the ‘big players’ ads becoming a bit of an institution in people’s lives in the last few years, it felt like the perfect opportunity to release it again, and it seems to have resonated with people.          

Although not a Christmas advert in the traditional sense, Marion discovered that hosting a giveaway created a great deal of traction for her small business. “A very cost-effective way of raising brand awareness was launching a giveaway on Instagram. It cost me only £35 of products but it allowed me to grow my following by 20 per cent.”  

Create a new product 

A collection of houseplants in front of a white background
Elm’s Mystery Boxes have been a huge success

For the business leaders at Elm, creating a new product came out of necessity but ended up being a huge hit. The shop’s Mystery Boxes, where customers pay a set price to receive a parcel of hand-chosen goodies, were initially born out of the need to shift the fresh plants we had in the shop when the first lockdown came into effect. As its website states, the Mystery Boxes blossomed from needing a way to support our bricks and mortar store through the first coronavirus lockdown. Tara told us that the plant Mystery Boxes were “incredibly popular” from the get-go, inspiring a whole range of Mystery Boxes the business continues to sell. 

Heading into the second lockdown, however, Elm noticed a change in the Mystery Boxes being shiftedThe run-up to Christmas and perhaps the change in season (not the best weather for houseplants) has definitely brought a higher number of orders that are more homeware-, cards- and accessory-based, Tara reflected, emphasising the importance of monitoring how consumer trends have changed from the first lockdown to the second. The introduction of the new Mystery Boxes has been a great success, however. 

Some final thoughts 

Reflecting on the success of their small business and what they’ve achieved in the run-up to Christmas, Daisy and Liv had some final pointers about how to make it in the online world. It’s about making the experience enjoyable, they added, pointing out that it’s important to remain true to your small business roots. It’s about offering services and products that big brands can’t. Don’t try and compete on price – compete on the fact that you’re offering something super personalised, special, original, handmade, sustainable, ethical, beautiful and one-off. Make them excited about that. Oh, and make sure your delivery options are clear, reliable and timely. 

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