Independent retailers have been a lifeline for their local communities during the pandemic.

In the early days of the Covid crisis, they provided staples supermarkets struggled to keep in stock, and delivered goods to the housebound. As restrictions eased, they were a haven for shoppers avoiding larger, crowded stores, while their staff offered a friendly face for those who would otherwise have felt isolated.

“The pandemic resulted in a large-scale shift towards shopping locally, which saw a boost for small-format retail outlets and other small, local businesses,” says Blonnie Whist, insight director at analysts Lumina Intelligence.

“As the pandemic draws to an end there will be a rebalancing and some consumers will return to old habits, but the opportunities for smaller, local businesses to retain the incremental footfall they have benefitted from remain.”

How do independent shops embrace this opportunity to hold on to or regain customers, without breaking the bank?

For a start, there are some encouraging stats from Lumina. Citing its Future of Convenience Report 2021, the company says three quarters of shoppers indicate that supporting local suppliers and retailers is important to them.

“Stores that continue to evolve and cater to the needs of the local community will retain customers,” adds Whist. “However the challenge will become more difficult when movement is less restricted.” 

We asked four communications experts with experience in the food and drink industry to suggest tactics a retailer can employ to remind customers of the value of their local store.

Letty Edwards
Founder, The Mind Collective marketing consultancy

It is crucial independent retailers capitalise on their new customer base by prioritising their keener budgets on what will keep consumers ‘local’ versus migrating back to the big boys. I see there being three distinct opportunities:

  • Helping fuel the local economy. Don’t be afraid to highlight that you are a small local business and that buying from you fuels the local economy and livelihoods. The range is sourced locally and is therefore more traceable, ethical, regional and seasonal. Name the farms, farmers and local suppliers they are supporting. It is also more sustainable and fresher as there is less transit time. And don’t be afraid to ask the brands you stock for help and marketing investment.
  • Power of community. Think regional, local and personal when it comes to marketing. Target regional press, undertake door drops in proximity to the retail location, geo-target digital advertising, infiltrate community groups on Facebook or WhatsApp (huge amounts were set up during the pandemic), leverage good old-fashioned word of mouth through a refer-a-friend scheme, personalise your marketing messages and ensure you regularly update your product offer based on regular consumer feedback. Understanding your community, shopper and customer is key, whether it be digitally or face to face.
  • Make it easier and better. Prioritise ease and convenience so that buying locally is even better than nationally. First-class customer service, tailored and personalised ranges or delivery boxes, more diverse product range with key seasonal focus, encourage trial through offers and free samples and be fully online and flexible.

And finally, the most important, reward loyalty again and again and again.

Vhari Russell
MD, The Food Marketing Expert

  • Social media. Don’t try and do it all. Pick one platform and do it really well with photos showcasing what you sell, and share with the team who are selling it. People buy from people. Consumers love to buy into brands and see behind the scenes. Consistency is also key with social media, so post regularly and at similar times each time you post. Ideally post three times a week.
  • Reward loyalty. Reward your loyal customers with a free gift, or a free cup of coffee when they have purchased nine. You will know what will excite and entice your customers best. Don’t forget to share these offers with your customers, on social media, and in your newsletter.
  • Waste not. Look at getting on the app Too Good to Go. Not only does it show customers you are not letting food go to waste, but it helps you reach new customers who will come and shop with you for other items too. This app is not just for the big boys, it has over 18 million users. As a business you can never be complacent, you always need to look for new customers.
  • Staycations. The majority of the UK will be enjoying a staycation this year and this opens up opportunities. You can offer staycation bundles to enjoy at home or can tap into those holidaying near your shop. Chat to your local tourist office and see if you can run collaborations with them, maybe a free picnic with a local boat or punting company as a competition on social media. It is all about getting your brand seen and heard so that when they are holidaying near you they come and shop. Holiday cottages are great to partner with as you can be part of the welcome pack or offer an ‘order before you arrive’ service.

Martin Ballantine
MD, PR and social media agency Piracy Corporation

You don’t have to spend a fortune on digital marketing. The best way to get found and achieve profile on Google is by earned media – pure editorial, created by peer, social and media reviews. In other words, PR. 

You can achieve this by doing some simple research about which local journalists and bloggers could spread the word for free. Even if it costs you a basket of some products it’ll be worth it – there’s genuine passion and credibility among the best bloggers.

Local journalists want to hear your story, especially if you’re helping support food and drink producers from your region. Consider creating themed hampers and months highlighting types of produce, occasions and gifting moments. Collaborate with local suppliers for these as this helps give the media reasons to write about you. And remember that gifting is especially important in these times: because of what people have been through, we’re being more generous so don’t miss the opportunity for offering premium or unusual trade-ups!

Also, Google loves LinkedIn, so get your shop/company page on there, sort your personal page out and keep both active.

Finally, most people want to see small businesses succeed so don’t forget the impact and potential of asking for support and help in spreading the word.

Jennifer John
Director, Ceres PR

Farm shops, delis and food halls need to foster a sense of community in their communication to customers.

Social media is a great way to stay connected with customers. Share pictures of the farm, fresh produce and the people. Incentivise visits with news of new products and seasonal offers like local new potatoes or strawberries. Where there is a café on site, a loyalty scheme could offer free coffee to regulars and encourage them to spend time at the store now that browsing in-store is allowed.

Covid rules permitting, small events such as tastings are another way to encourage visits to a store. Consider partnering with a supplier or another local business to share costs and organisation time too.

It is worth building relationships with local media and any local foodies and influencers so they can help spread the word about the store and what it has to offer.