How can small retailers use online to boost business?

Rebecca Morley looks at how bricks and mortar retailers can get in front of an online-first audience

2020 was a turbulent year for retail in which many stores bounced between being open and closed – and even though bike shops were permitted to remain open throughout each lockdown, some still chose to shut up shop and many high streets saw a reduction in footfall as consumers were advised to stay at home – which also contributed to a surge in e-commerce sales.

But as more physical retail opens up across the UK, Google-backed retail technology firm NearSt believes now is the time for bricks and mortar retailers to get in front of this online-first audience and let them know they have the products they’re looking for. The firm recently partnered with cloud-based EPOS platform Cybertill, meaning shops can connect their entire inventory to Google search in real-time, and switch it on and off at the touch of a button.

“The Cybertill and NearSt partnership is getting more customers into brick and mortar stores by getting retailers’ in-store products into Google and in front of thousands of local customers who are already searching for them,” says Nick Brackenbury, CEO and co-founder of NearSt.

“Shopkeepers need to focus first and foremost on running their stores – not worrying about also acting as technologists and marketeers, alongside all the other hats they have to wear. The partnership between Cybertill and NearSt means that shopkeepers can get their products seen by thousands more local customers searching nearby in Google, simply by continuing to use their Cybertill Electronic Point of Sale (EPOS) system to track their stock.”

NearSt uses data from the system to automatically show these products to local shoppers, driving more footfall and sales for the stores, Brackenbury continues. “Lots has already been written about the 40% boost online sales have received during the pandemic, but what’s been missed is the incredible surge in shoppers going online to look for products stocked offline in their local stores.

“In NearSt data, we’ve seen over 350% growth over the last 12 months in the volume of shoppers seeking out local product availability information in shops in Google powered by our technology.” Shoppers have always had tremendous goodwill towards local retailers, Brackenbury says, but this has competed head to head with the one-click checkout ease of e-commerce sites like Amazon.

The last 12 months have prompted thousands of retailers, and their partners like Cybertill, to invest in technology like NearSt that helps get their products in front of where their customers are spending their time – in places like Google and Facebook.

“In doing so, they’re setting themselves up to be even more convenient than Amazon, in addition to the great service and local benefit they already deliver,” says Brackenbury. “We think this will have an incredibly positive impact on smaller independent retailers. Rather than talking about ‘supporting’ local high street retailers, we prefer to think of it as simply ‘shopping’ with them.

“As high street retailers continue to invest in technology and make it genuinely faster and easier for local shoppers to buy from them, rather than a pure play online retailer, it won’t be a case of supporting them. Rather, they genuinely become a more convenient option. And that’s an exciting future.”

Being resilient
Embracing digital is one of the top ways small firms have survived the COVID-19 crisis so far, says Small Business Britain. Its How to Be Resilient report found that 52% of small firms said they got through by introducing new technology. 59% increased digital skills and over 70% of business owners felt the digital changes they made would enhance their business over the longer-term.

“The COVID-19 crisis has seen breathtaking changes to the small business landscape,” says Michelle Ovens CBE, founder of Small Business Britain. “It has been incredibly tough for small firms, but so many have risen to the challenge and demonstrated inspiring entrepreneurialism and resilience as they pivoted their businesses.

“Research that Small Business Britain did with TSB at the start of the year found that embracing digital, diversifying products and services and accessing emergency finance – particularly Bounce Back Loans – were the top ways small firms have survived. The silver lining of COVID-19 has been the dramatic growth in digital engagement and skills, as businesses moved online at a speed never seen before.”

Small Business Britain has also been celebrating small firms with the Small Awards, which took place virtually on 13th May. “We started them deliberately to celebrate small firms that can be overlooked by other awards,” explains Ovens. “After such a difficult year, it is especially important to call out the impressive resilience of small businesses and the huge value they bring to society and the economy.

“During the pandemic, small businesses have faced all kinds of challenges, but many have really stepped as heroes, supporting their customers, communities and fellow independent businesses. COVID-19 has been a huge learning exercise for firms. Although painful to go through, in many
cases it has created more resilient businesses with greater skills, efficiency and confidence in what they can achieve.

“Small businesses will be the bedrock for recovery – growing employment, fostering innovation and creating exciting, positive opportunities for communities. Increased local supply chains, less travel and more digital working have also had profound benefits for the environment. Many small businesses have moved themselves closer to a net zero goal, and that is certainly a good thing they can build on too.”

Moving forward, Ovens’ biggest piece of advice for small businesses is ‘not to try to do everything alone’. “A great deal of pressure and responsibility falls on entrepreneurs, even in the best of times.  As we start to emerge from this crisis small business owners should continue to seek out support.

“Join a network, become part of a community, find a mentor to support you, collaborate with others and if you don’t know how to do something, ask for help. There is a huge amount of advice, support and encouragement available, much of which is free and online, so use it.”

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