When Napoleon Bonaparte called the UK a nation of shopkeepers, he was supposedly commenting on our propensity for commerce. We suspect that not even Napoleon, however, could have foreseen that in two centuries, most Brits would consider owning an independent shop their dream career.
Shopkeepers revel in retail, and need gumption and self-motivation to succeed. You won’t need any academic expertise, but you should expect to apply some elbow grease to your business and you can hone your marketing chops at the National Skills Academy for Retail. You may also need to invest some long hours, including evenings and weekends.
And, like any other entrepreneur, independent shopkeepers have some significant challenges to overcome. When small and medium businesses make up 99% of all enterprises in the UK, you’ll need to stand out.
To help you pave the road to success, we have some advice to help you tackle three challenges you’re sure to face as a self-employed shopkeeper.
1. Getting started
Competition is stiff, and you might be understandably nervous about entering a market in which 16 stores closed per day in the first 6 months of 2014, according to PwC and Local Data Company. The industry may not feel very cutthroat, but whether you realise it or not, you’ll be competing with numerous other starry eyed dreamers to make your shop stand out.
The two best pieces of advice we can offer to help you kick start your career as an entrepreneur are to work in an industry you’re passionate about and to fill a consumer niche. People find immense appeal in buying locally, so if you can offer them services that their community lacks, your business will boom.
For example, independent food shops have been making a huge comeback across the UK as savvy consumers flock to specialty shops instead of the wholesale beast that is your local supermarket. “Buying local is an extension of that,” according to Rachel Halstead, owner of Rachael’s Kitchen. “Buying from someone you physically know on the high street means you get a personal service which isn’t possible with supermarkets.”
And don’t underestimate how infectious your customers will find your enthusiasm: “For example a customer asked for a new flavour of cupcake – Eton Mess – and the next day we’d created it,” Rachel says. “There’s something to be said for being specialist for one thing. People have more of a connection with the brand.”
Of course, you’ll need to tackle the practical concerns too, such as balancing the books and registering with HMRC. QuickBooks Self-Employed is here to help you simplify your finances, and we’ve also got a great series on the challenges you can expect when starting out as a sole trader.
2. Building your reputation
In 2011, retail consultant Mary Portas published The Portas Review, an independent examination of the future of high street retail shops. In its foreword, Portas says that she “fundamentally believe[s] that once we invest in and create social capital in the heart of our communities, the economic capital will follow.”
Here we are, and it still holds true—you need to win your customers’ hearts before you can worry about their pounds.
When Bee Hopkins, a self-employed dog walker and boarder, encountered setbacks, she found the same thing—nothing beats a good reputation.
“Word got around that I was one-on-one with my boarders and it was a specialist service and people liked that. I’m CRB checked and word gets around. The best form of advertising is word of mouth,” she says.
Proving your competence to your customer is just as important as providing a quality service, when you’re a self-employed shopkeeper. “Trust is a key issue in this,” Hopkins says, “so I have insurances in place and am licensed by my local authority.”
No matter your area of expertise, referrals will only help you succeed as a sole trader. For more advice on finding work and establishing your reputation, please visit our article on the challenges of being self-employed.
3. Adapting to the internet age
Sorry to say for you old-fashioned entrepreneurs, but the internet is here to stay.
This doesn’t have to be such a scary prospect, however. Stats show that Britain’s online business is booming, with consumers spending £718.7 million weekly online. This number is double what online retail raked in only five years ago, and that figure is only expected to grow.
Grace Haskin, a florist operating in Somerset, has seen nothing but benefits since launching a website for her shop, Bramble and Wild. During a study with bira—a great resource for independent retailers!—she said, “I have had wedding bookings through the site which is fantastic. One customer came in with the website on their mobile phone screen, and showed me the bouquet that they wanted and had seen online.”
According to bira’s report—”A Nation of Shopkeepers”—10% of customers said that a lack of online and/or mobile presence deters them from spending money. The great irony is that many consumers want to spend their money in brick-and-mortar stores, but can’t find the specialty shops they seek, because these sites don’t have websites.
Don’t let your business fall behind in an interconnected age—make sure you’re marketing your shop both within your community and across the internet!