Tuesday 4 May 2021 7:00 am

There is a generation of small businesses hungry to reinvent the high street

Emma Jones is founder of small business support network Enterprise Nation

You’d be forgiven for thinking the story of our British high streets was all about the evacuation of large retailers. 

Debenhams, Mothercare, Topshop, Peacocks barely scratch the surface of the total exodus which has seen 11,000 shops close in just 12 months. 

Many have been quick to explain that the pandemic has simply accelerated an inevitable, crumbling demise. 

While our high streets might look bleak right now as larger companies withdraw, small businesses are preparing to return and will play an important role in their future. We should all get behind them.

A new generation of retail entrepreneurs is emerging. To give you context, last year saw a dramatic increase in the number of new business registrations at Companies House – 772,002, a 13 per cent increase on 2019. While not all of them are product-based businesses with high street ambition, there is an element of sales in them all. 

There is also a huge appetite for new retail. Many businesses started over lockdown are online only, and happy there. Others have built their business online, but the end goal is the high street. There is also a midway point between these two: those who want the exposure of the high street, with the flexibility of digital sales.

At Enterprise Nation, we have launched Hello World, a new shop on Oxford Street. Alongside digital payments provider SumpUP and retail operator, Sook, it will allow 33 start-up and early entrepreneurs to take their first steps onto the high street with pop-up places in the shop. It will allow them to make use of their burgeoning digital backdrops as well as help them gain vital bricks-and-mortar experience.

While the reality is, not all of these new brands will take on a permanent store, many will build a new, hybrid model to trade.  They will sell via their own website, many will also use powerful global digital platforms like Instagram to increase their reach – and many of them will target independent stockists as well.  The interesting thing is, while many felt e-commerce was a total replacement for in-person shopping, these new brands have a healthy respect for the subtle art of the high street. 

The relationship is symbiotic. At the same time as building digital sales, they are looking for genuine opportunities to get out in front of their audiences because they recognise the opportunity physical retail offers. 

It’s clear small firms can trade well online – but it’s often hard for them to get the SEO and all the traction they need to stand out against the financial might and digital prowess of larger digital firms.  For these new founders, popping up on the high street for limited periods of time delivers marketing and social media content, as well as sales. 

The shop makes use of technology and digital backdrops to give small online firms the ability to effortlessly move into a relevant atmosphere for as little as a day without the need to design, arrange and fill a whole shop. 

By doing things this way, up-and-coming retail brands can have it all without having to sacrifice anything, or sign a long-term lease that will see them financially bound to one place or outlet.   

This new breed of high street entrepreneur is not solely focused on consumerism, rather many have social purpose and sustainability at the heart of their offering and are looking to understand how to position this within a traditional high street setting by experimentation. 

While it’s true the traditional make-up of our high streets is changing dramatically, it may not be the disaster pundits would have us believe and if we keep the faith and willingly support, it could actually be better than ever. See you there? 

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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