How COVID-19 made us ‘choose local’ once again

Shop local

When the country was first locked down in early 2020, many of us found ourselves turning to local independent businesses for our necessities, since many larger chains failed to meet the demand. 

This experience highlighted how local businesses have been competing with the big chains and online retailers for our custom, and there was a sense of gratitude they were still there to offer a solution during this difficult time.

The high street’s balance between independents and chains has been unequal for years, with the smaller businesses facing intense pressure on price and other factors. Yet despite this, many have realised that they really value our independents, and would like to see them take a more dominant, permanent role on the local high street once again. 

Graham Soult, Retail Consultant, and member of the High Streets Task Force told us, for our new future of the high streets report, that he has faith in the scale of opportunity for independent businesses. He believes that if independents can survive during one of the most challenging commercial periods we’ve ever witnessed, they can evolve to thrive more long-term. To do so they will need to be innovative, experiential, and unique to their location. He believes that a great local retailer should offer the best local produce, for example, and should be a unique destination for both the community and visitors alike. 

This point of view was echoed by Richard Pickering, Chief Strategy Officer UK at Cushman & Wakefield who commented that a re-localisation of businesses and local operators is occurring throughout the country. People are realising that their local corner shop was there for them during the tough times of COVID-19, and as a result he believes these businesses will continue benefit from a sense of loyalty that may not have been there before the pandemic. 

‘Choosing local’ appears to be a growing in popularity up and down the country, with certain places such as Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire already well-known for its local, chain-free high street. Graham Mynott, Executive Director of the Hebden Bridge Community Association comments on residents strong desire to retain independent shops and businesses in our report; he told us of an incident that occurred a few years ago when Sainsburys said they wanted to take over a vacant shop opposite the town hall, but it was fiercely opposed due to the damage residents felt it could cause to local businesses. A lot of locals, he said, are very passionate about money staying within the community too.

Unfortunately, not all towns have been able to hold on to local businesses. Scott Mackay, manager of Midsteeple Quarter in Dumfries, Scotland, said that their town sadly lost its market a number of years ago and, as a result, the local community had become quite negative about the high street. Many locally-owned businesses closed, and the buildings were bought out by landlords who leased them to chains. Sadly, not even the chains survived as Dumfries wasn’t considered to have a big enough catchment area for them to stay open. Some of the prime retail units have now been empty for over a decade and are waiting for landlords and the community (including local independent business owners) to work together to bring them back to life. 

If COVID-19 has had any positive impact, it has enabled us to see the value in our local amenities and has encouraged many to support local business again. The hope now is that choosing local is a habit for many households across the country that will fuel and encourage the survival of independent businesses, and the opening of more locally run shops, bars, restaurants and cafes in empty units. This not only directly benefiting those that live and work in the area, but it also creates fresh commercial opportunity for landlords too. 

By Jeremy Wakeham, CEO of the Business Division at Withers, and a commercial real estate partner.

Find out more about the future of the local high street in this new report from Withers: