Retailers call for 'Shop Out to Help Out' scheme when stores reopen

By Mary-Ann Russon
Business reporter, BBC News

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A group of big names in fashion and retail are campaigning for the government to provide more support for small independent shops.

They want the chancellor to offer a "Shop Out to Help Out" scheme to get consumers spending again when non-essential shops reopen on 12 April.

It would cover 50% of a shopper's costs, up to £10, on Monday to Wednesdays for a month.

And it would only apply at physical stores with fewer than 10 staff.

The "Save The Street" campaign says independent retailers won't survive without it. The Treasury did not comment on whether it would pursue the idea, but said it had protected "millions" of retail jobs during the pandemic.

The proposed scheme - which would work like the Eat Out to Help Out restaurant discounts last year - is backed by the likes of beauty entrepreneur Charlotte Tilbury, fashion designer Henry Holland and retail consultant Mary Portas.

"We would be kidding ourselves to think that everything will be fine for independent retailers once they reopen on 12 April," says Ross Bailey, the entrepreneur leading the campaign.

"Now it is the government's responsibility to support these businesses and ensure they are given a fighting chance to bounce back - the government needs to show that all businesses matter, not just big businesses."

The British Retail Consortium estimates that non-essential retail stores lost around £22bn in sales in 2020 due to lockdown measures, as footfall declined by 40%.

Independent shops - many of which lack a strong online presence - were hit particularly hard as they faced prolonged closures and restrictions.

Yet this hasn't stopped people from trying to start businesses. Latest data from Cornerstone Tax, which gives advice on property stamp duty, shows 13% of consumers have started, or intend to start, their own business in 2021.

The firm's research also shows more than half of consumers want to support smaller firms over retail giants.

'We really badly need the support'

Clare Oakey is the co-founder of Frippery Lifestyle Boutique, an independent fashion and homeware retailer in Colchester.

image copyrightFrippery Lifestyle Boutique
image captionClare Oakey, co-founder of Frippery Lifestyle Boutique, says keeping up payments to suppliers has hit her personal finances hard through the pandemic

She and her business partner Kim will spend up to £1,000 on reopening promotional activities, including printing a hundred 10%-off discount vouchers for the local barber to give away, putting flower arrangements and sweets in the shop, and offering customers who make a purchase goodie bags.

Ms Oakey says that five retail chain outlets on the same high street will not be reopening on 12 April, along with a number of independent stores. So even though people in Colchester generally like supporting small retailers, more needs to be done to get the public spending on the High Street again.

"We've prioritised keeping our business open by paying invoices to suppliers to keep the company running long term, but the honest truth is that it's been financially tough on a very personal level for me and my business partner," Clare tells the BBC.

"We really badly need the support - any form of help to let us catch up and break even, in terms of a scheme that incentivises the customers. We're nothing without customers."

image copyrightFrippery Lifestyle Boutique

The only nice thing, she says, is that local independent businesses have come together to help each other out.

For example, while the Frippery has been closed in the most recent lockdown, a nearby artisan coffee shop, Sir Isaacs Coffee House, has offered a click-and-collect service on its behalf.

It meant the Frippery could continue serving its customers online, while the coffee shop got more exposure and hopefully sold a few extra coffees.

'Immediate action needed'

Retail analysts are also seriously concerned about the situation facing Britain's independent shops.

"Independent retailers have had a tumultuous year and immediate action is needed to avoid a high street apocalypse," says Natalie Berg, retail analyst at NBK Retail.

A Shop Out to Help Out Scheme would encourage consumers to "ditch their screens" and support their local shops, she says.

"This is a unique opportunity to redefine our high streets, but without government support we'll be bracing for a retail bloodbath."

image copyrightKate Hardcastle
image captionRetail expert Kate Hardcastle says this time the government needs to do more than just say “Buy local”.

Retail expert Kate Hardcastle agrees, pointing out that independent retailers were the ones who "really demonstrated their worth" in the early days of the pandemic in coming to their communities' aid when other retailers didn't have their online shopping offerings ready.

She is concerned that everyone will forget about them now.

"Just telling people to shop small as has been previous campaigns might serve as a reminder, not an action," she tells the BBC.

"Just as the case was with Eat Out to Help Out, we need to see our government support small businesses longer term.

"I'd love to see initiatives to make it easier for small businesses to open up on the High Street and rejuvenate."

She says the collaborative approach used by the Frippery and its neighbours is the right one: "The future of small businesses has to be one of collaboration and not feeling they have to justify their worth to consumers all the time, but being able to focus on a brilliant offer because they can afford to survive."

A Treasury spokesman said: "We've supported retailers across the UK though out the outbreak, protecting millions of jobs - and will continue to do so in the months ahead.

"Shops won't pay any business rates until July, can continue to furlough staff until September, and are receiving Restart Grants of up to £6,000."

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