Battling the big boys

Battling the big boys
“The only way the big companies can compete is on volume and logistics, so find another edge.”

We spoke to 40 small retailers as part of our research for Autumn Fair (trade show for retailers) about what their challenges and recommendations are for 2017. Here’s a bite-sized summary of how they’re approaching the challenge of pushing back against those online retailers. \ Thank you to those who shared their views with us, I hope it’s useful. Look out for ‘Online, no one can see you’re small’, and ‘Think small, Think added value’ for more direct advice from your peers.




You could be persuaded to panic. You’re a small retailer and your customer walks in holding a smartphone; you know they’re checking prices, you know they can serve themselves online without your help and you can’t throw the resources of one of the major High Street chains at the online world.

We know that’s an issue for many smaller retailers because you’ve told us so. The average bricks and mortar retailer has seen trade falling by 2.4% a year in 2014 to 2.3% pa in 2015. The curious thing is that last year, 2016, retail sales rose by 2.1%, according to the Centre for Retail Research. And retail has always been competitive, hasn’t it?

So that’s good news – it’s not just a case of “we’re doomed”. So what can a small retailer do about it? Respondents to our survey had a number of responses:

  • The only way the big companies can compete is on volume and logistics, so find another edge. Be the coolest, the most niche, take feedback from your customers and be seen to implement it. The bigger companies can’t react as quickly as you – it’s a strength, use it!

  • Try not to rely on a small group of customers from a particular demographic. Large retailers are redirecting footfall to the retail parks where they can. Use launches and promotional events to speak to and engage with your customer base – let them feel they’re buying from you rather than from a business.

  • Get involved with the community. One of our respondents noted a local project called “Footfall”, which allowed independent retailers to hang kids’ work in empty shop windows. The supermarkets can be wise to this one too, but it can get proud parents coming back to the shop.

  • Be proactive with your stock – is restocking the same thing over and over again the way to encourage new customers? If you’re a garden centre, once they’re used to buying product X they might resort to getting it delivered from an online source; considering why they like it and offering rotating, complementary products will keep them coming back.

  • When it’s Christmas, offer mulled wine! Even teetotallers will welcome the smell of Christmas and visit your store rather than a soulless establishment.

  • Never overlook the advantage you have of being in complete control. One of our respondents reported that customers found their wide and accessible aisles very appealing. If your larger competition’s selling point is in being an identikit branch, you can stymie them with this completely.

Other thoughts on offer included growing your customer base even if you do perceive your premises as “small” – some loss of customers to the larger competition is inevitable, get a reputation for being the best place to go for service for a larger number and you can afford to take a small hit.

Finally, consider something quirky and fun that works as an impulse buy. Those still happen in the bricks and mortar world more than they do online – just about nobody buys, for example, a greetings card online.

Can you offer something that just doesn’t fit into an online sale?