Attention National Retailers and Services: Look and Learn from the Independents to Thrive

July 8, 20208min

National and international brands need to learn key lessons from the independents and work with them to create sustainable and vibrant high street futures. 

Let’s discuss this in detail.

A moment of flux 

Throughout lockdown, local independents continued to demonstrate their place in the spotlight, quietly taking on new roles to keep their businesses afloat and communities’ needs met. Florists became green-grocers, pubs became distribution hubs and bakers have been selling street to street like ice-cream vans. These independents aren’t winging it blindly, their confidence to step out of old norms and into the unknown is due to the rooted relationships they’ve been building with locals over the years. 

We’ve carried out a study to find what consumers want brands to focus on across retail, grocery and the restaurant sectors. The results show that consumers want businesses to double down on socio-environmental issues. While these behaviours are often second nature for local independents, our national retailers and services need to refocus their brand strategies and be more local than ever before.  

So how can big nationals think and act like, and with, locals? 

A new collaborative choreography of people and place 

It used to be so easy. With a vague plan in mind, shoppers ambled from shop to shop, café to courtyard and mixed it up.

These days, with new COVID (1 metre plus) queues and limited service-environments, the role of open data to way-find through this new normal is clear.

For example, cities such as Bath implement an open data strategy that aggregates data from the point of sale, social media, GPS, phone reception, wi-fi and footfall. Taking a data-by-design first approach, retailers and public-private initiatives should supercharge local understanding.

It would also support collaboration to innovate, generate shared use of space, create complimentary high street customer experience strategies and find new ways of fluid contracting for leased units.  

Relationships matter 

Brands have spent vast sums of money fine-tuning their digital relationships with customers, offering up hyper-personalised shop windows. Though with large, often-transient staff-bases, it’s hard for nationals to mimic the long-term friendships between local boutiques and their regulars.

However, with a mix of investment in digital capability and staff-wellbeing, similar conditions can be achieved. Forty-eight percent of customers want businesses to invest in their staff, who in turn would feel more connected, fulfilled and rewarded, and therefore be more present to customers’ needs.

Pair the same reinvigorated staff with the next generation of live-instore digital intelligence – quickly understanding who a customer is and what they need – and you’ve got a chance to form deeper, short term, in-person customer relationships. 

Devolution of brand, engagement and operational strategy 

Nationals must create new suites of capabilities, including new permissions to help local managers engage their communities and understand how to reflect local cultural norms and needs. New toolkits for engagement and outreach, supported by appropriate open data-sets, will help local managers and staff promote central brand identities. At the same time it will allow localised adaptations to operations and propositions to mirror the uniqueness of their locality be implemented.  

The bigger-connected picture 

From transportation to queues, and click and collect to interactions with shop assistants, it has never been more important to understand how to make these processes both efficient and enjoyable. The high-street, as an interconnected space of disparate customer experiences, needs to zoom out, map ‘frenemies’ and joint ventures, and use place-based design to join up the overall shopping experience. Recently, the likes of Sainsbury’s have teamed up with Argos and Habitat to offer customers a chance to cover all their shopping needs under one roof creating a seamless experience.

Adaptive & collaborative high street design 

If not before, now is the time for large retailers and services to adopt a fail-often-to-succeed-sooner, design-led approach. And building new partnerships with independents will enable sustainable strategies.

Local independents need trusted nationals to thrive on the high street as much as nationals need more leftfield independent businesses to bring diversity and edgier offers. Working alongside one another to sustain residency on the high street, while sustaining differentiated slices of the market. 

Data-driven design-thinking has increasingly been the go-to for digital transformation over the last decade. This insightful, iterative, lean approach to change and innovation can help nationals test and prototype new, local initiatives with relatively featherlight investment.  With data-in-hand, local participatory design can imagine new uses for spaces, new community events and fresh commercial propositions. For example, testing investment in local and community supply chains or understanding how to create shopping experiences that stretch across service and retail outlets. Both big brands and local independents are both up for something much more collaborative and connected.

Sustainable high street strategies 

In our moment of flux, a new era of adaptive high streets, built on co-created visions and brought to life by the people who live and work there are in sight. These future streets are data-fuelled and people-powered to challenge the immediacy and convenience of online, offering up community-connection craved by many. These future strategies celebrate not just what sit on the insides of retail and service units, but the collaborative spaces that host many opportunities too.  

We are returning to our high streets and can re-define our relationship with the outside world. This is our moment to co-create high streets fit for a very different fine-tuned future. 


David Singer

David Singer

David Singer is Principal Service Designer at Engine Transformation.




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