An independent retailer’s guide to surviving Christmas (and keeping your sanity)

For most of us, the summer glides into Christmas alarming quickly; Halloween and bonfire night are minor stepping stones as the festive season approaches. No more so than for independent retailers, whose minds are fixed firmly on Christmas even while it’s still warm enough to sunbathe.    

This isn’t because of a childish love of Santa and presents, but because November and December are the months in which retailers make the lion’s share of their profits. The same can be said for all the businesses that feed into their supply chain. Poor Christmas sales, then, usually spell a bad year overall.

When the economy is soaring, and consumers are spending merrily, it’s possible to sit back and let the customers come to you, but these happy events are few and far between. Usually it’s a bun fight with independents pitched against high street behemoths, goliath discounters like Amazon and, of course, each other.

The good news is that families almost always spend big at Christmas. In 2017, the average household splashed more than £475 on presents and £225 on food and drink in the build-up to the big day, as well as extra on decorations and general home-sprucing.

While spending ebbs and flows each year, there are always rich pickings for businesses that prepare well, seize opportunities and drive up efficiencies to prise open profit margins when the sales start rolling in.  

Plan to prevent Christmas chaos

Time waits for no man nor woman, so start envisaging your Christmas strategy right away. Big retailers plan all year, so you’re playing catch-up, but the good news is you’ll be ahead of the millions of small businesses that don’t plan at all.

If, for you, Christmas is the busiest time of year, then consider how you’ll steer customers through your door. Then make sure you have enough stock to sell them and calculate whether you need more resources, whether that means investing in equipment or people, to make it all happen smoothly.

Marketing up a storm

A marketing strategy is a complicated thing, incorporating online and offline messaging, shop signage and decoration. Worse news is that the big retailers spend millions on getting it just right – watch this year’s John Lewis TV ad, or Liberty’s grand display unveiling for details.

But independent retailers can get in on the act by adding personal touches and warm customer service that the big multiples can’t match. There’s scope for sales online too, via niche keyword targeting in Google ads or by adapting to consumer trends quickly.

And if you can’t beat them, many online stores including Amazon, ASOS and Notonthehighstreet let you join them, by listing items for sale and benefiting from their mammoth customer base to drive up your own sales.

Slick business operations

The busier you are the more important it is to have fluid business processes. Does the shop layout inspire customers to make purchases and can they glide effortlessly around – or do they get stuck in bottlenecks when more than 10 arrive at once?

Are your displays attractive and have you read up on the latest methods to attract eyeballs and convert them into paying customers and brand evangelists? Is your epos system fit for purpose and can it cope with a spike in footfall? Can you restock quickly if popular lines sell out?

It’s important to ensure that your business has the space and the tools to do the job. So, if you’re still working from the same till you bought in 1995, it’s probably time for an upgrade. The world turns quickly and there is a huge array of business-boosting products and services out there – so make them count.

Boost your people power

A thorny issue related to the Christmas period is recruiting enough people to cover the spike in activity. For many businesses this is a fine balance; not only must you predict demand, but also anticipate upheaval caused by festive celebrations, annual leave and inevitable sick days.

Luckily there is an increase in capacity during December, as colleges and universities break up and young people looking for holiday money stream back into their home villages, towns and cities. It might be worth signing up with a recruitment agency specialising in temporary work, but remember you’ll have to set aside additional time to meet, interview and train new staff.

If you’ve been in business for more than 12 months, refer to previous Christmas periods and assess the good and the bad. Factor in any business growth or shifts in the market – for example, a new residential development could lead to increased demand – and make a sensible projection. If you’re planning a bigger marketing drive this year, then account for the likely response from customers and hire accordingly.

Deal with stress

For many in the UK, Christmas is a time to kick back, relax and forget about the stresses of the nine-to-five for a week or so. But retailers have no such luxury; in fact, it could be your most stressful time of the year.

So, make sure the hectic final quarter doesn’t lead to burnout – either for yourself or the people who work for you. This is obviously easier said than done, but a bit of preparation will take away some of the strain.

Don’t try to do it all alone and be honest with yourself about the challenge you face. If you need help, then procure it; it’s possible that the extra expense will be accounted for by increased productivity and extra sales on top of lower stress levels.

Most importantly, don’t forget that Christmas is meant to be a holiday and you should factor in downtime to spend with family and friends. Entrepreneurs often lose sight of the need for time away from the business, but taking a step back allows you to recharge the batteries.

An additional benefit is that people often have their best ideas when they allow themselves time to relax. Working ‘on’ the business instead of ‘in’ it is a great way to come up with creative ideas that power your empire forward.

If you haven’t already, it’s time to start thinking about festive business. Preparation pays dividends and an investment of time, effort and cash will come back in the form of increased profits, lower stress levels and, in general, a very merry Christmas.

This is a guest post from iwoca

iwoca helps independent retailers by breaking down the barriers that stop small businesses from accessing finance. We provide loans of up to £200,000 to small and micro businesses across the UK via our website and through partner integrations using our Lending API and the Open Banking API. Since launching in 2012, we have lent more than £550 million to over 21,500 businesses and 70% of our lending decisions are automated, where customers get approved within 13 seconds. No more convoluted forms, long waits and unfairly rigid lending criteria, we make credit available in a couple of clicks. For more information go to www.iwoca.co.uk, like our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter @iwoca and Instagram @iwoca.

It’s all about the human connection

We all know that these are uncertain times, particularly for those who rely on the High Street for their living.  With recent figures showing High Street spending falling at its fastest annual rate in six years, and spend in bricks and mortar stores falling 5.4% year on year in April, all are well aware of the challenges we face.

However, whilst some in the independent sector may feel some kind of vicarious satisfaction at the demise of some of the larger retail names, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the perceived erosion of the stalwarts of the High Street merely feeds into the notion that somewhere there is a Retail Grim Reaper waiting to pounce. The reality is that a thriving retail sector would benefit the independent sector as much as it would the bigger players.

However, whilst it’s not within our sphere of influence to have a profound impact on the macro-picture, we can do what we can to shore up local shopping communities by shouting about the diversity that independent retailers bring, not just to our shopping areas but to our wider communities too. This comes down to passion, product choices, independent retailers’ support for the social fabric of communities and, of course, delivering great customer service. In short, it’s all about the human connection.

This was a common thread that ran through many of the discussions and presentations given at the recent bira conference in Hinckley. Samantha Yair and Emma Woodward, whose five shop and online business Aspire Style, which offers vintage inspired dresses, clothing, accessories and gifts, was named Independent Retail Business of the Year. They spoke eloquently about the importance of standing out on the High Street. Although it isn’t possible to compete with the large marketing spend of the bigger players, they explained, independents can and do make a difference through customer service.

This is delivered not only through their own passion for their business but also by empowering their staff to share that passion for the products they offer and the way they are presented. This not only helps them deliver great customer service but also, importantly, sell better. They have spent time creating a real experience in store, for example through special events, all of which contribute to customers feeling a buzz around the brand and building an authentic relationship with those who come through the door.

Independent retail businesses add a different dimension to local communities. They contribute to the distinct character and style of an area, can be a driver for employment and, their success can feed into the entrepreneurial spirit of those around them. All the more reason, therefore, why independents need to be given the support they need to ensure they thrive.