The act of shopping has undergone radical transformations in recent years. Indeed, it can be hard to get a handle on what we even mean by shopping any more. Is it primarily an activity conducted hunched in front of a laptop screen? Or on a mobile phone? Is it dominated by chain shops in giant shopping malls as local high streets wither and die? Or, on the contrary, is it characterised by a recent renaissance of local independent retailers and original brands – a kind of rewilding of the natural retail ecosystem.
While the pandemic caused a huge surge in online shopping, it also prompted a resurgence of local shopping as customers sought a retail experience that was more sustainable, more experiential, more local and simply more human. A survey by marketing agency Gekko revealed the yearning that people had for the “human” factor that had been absent during lockdowns. What 62% of respondents missed most about physical shopping was the ability to see, hold and try a product, while 52% missed the ability to browse, and 52% were pining for the sheer enjoyment of shopping.
These yearnings are unlikely to be short-lived: indeed, the trend for more independent and sustainable retailers predated the pandemic. “Retail over recent years has been an incredibly challenging industry,” says Laura Morroll, director at management consultancy BearingPoint. “We’ve witnessed former big brand retailers disappear from our high streets, and consumer choice diminishing. Independent brands and independent retailers should be well placed to offer the choice and variety that customers are craving.”
Independent shops typically have a knack for creating special experiences for customers in search of original and authentic products. Their ability to attract shoppers also reinforces a growing sense of community in their local areas. In many respects, the revival of local and independent commerce is a return to a more natural retail ecosystem.
“I believe that we are at a pivotal moment for the independent retailer,” says Andrew Goodacre, CEO of the British Independent Retailers Association (Bira). “Faceless corporate behemoths are going to lose out to them because they truly understand their demographics, the local culture in which they operate, and the wants and needs of the customer.”
Nonetheless, getting the right brands into their stores can be a challenge for independent retailers. For instance, they might increasingly find themselves competing on more intangible factors than price – such as discovery, authenticity, quirkiness, and the ability of well-sourced products to elevate the shopping experience.
“Shoppers are now far more aware of and pleasantly surprised by what is available locally; different, high-quality, diverse products that still offer great value,” says Goodacre. “To meet this demand, we encourage our retailers to look for those unique products from respected brands, and online marketplaces are a good place to start.”
B2B marketplaces provide independent brands, makers and designers with an opportunity to stand out, while helping retailers discover and work with new brands that best suit their targeted audience.
Ankorstore is a B2B marketplace that connects independent brands with retailers, florists, coffee shops, and other concept stores, allowing them to sell a more varied range of stock than large retail chains. Founded by four French e-commerce entrepreneurs, Ankorstore aims to reinvent the wholesale model, on the retail side and the brand side, helping both to be more creative and real. It helps retailers manage their portfolio of brands in one place – giving them more time to focus on the business rather than admin – and increase margins by saving on shipping and customs. Brands can accelerate their wholesale business thanks to a wider reach across the EU, which allows them to compete with e-commerce behemoths.
Some 30,000 brands across Europe, spanning a wide range of business sectors, are registered on the platform, including Jungle Culture. Founded by Jamie Skinner and Christopher Chalk during a backpacking adventure in south-east Asia, it sells its responsibly sourced, more eco-friendly products, from homeware to personal grooming, all over the world. Art Wow supports and promotes emerging artists and designers by selling their designs on a variety of homeware, gifts and art, while Darlington-based Beanies has a range of vegan, sugar-free coffee in various flavours, from sticky toffee to cherry chocolate.
These brands can achieve a scale beyond what many might have thought possible, by connecting with the platform’s 300,000 independent retailers from across the UK and EU.
Jumping Bean, for example, runs three shops in south-east London, all known for their extravagant seasonal window displays and abundance of lifestyle products. Chester-based Bloom & Albion offers a range of home and kitchen accessories, skincare products, and arts and crafts, and includes a Makers’ Space for artists and makers within its Grade I-listed premises. Curiouser and Curiouser, based in Edinburgh, has two gift shops selling a range of products, from illustrative prints to jewellery and homeware.
Of course, independent retailers cannot always compete with the speed and low price of the e-commerce giants. If you urgently need something delivered the next day, or sooner, the big e-commerce platforms still remain in a league of their own. But when it comes to the shopping experience, an afternoon spent exploring the high street’s independent offerings, with their vibrant window displays, stylish goods and original gift ideas has an appeal that is hard to beat. And while customers might “transact” and “order” products online, the independent human experience will likely come to define what we mean when we talk about “shopping”.