Yesterday in the US was Small Business Saturday. President Obama went shopping in a Virginia bookstore and the country was urged to support independent businesses. As chain retailers withdraw from UK high streets, encouraging the growth of independent high street businesses has become a matter of economic necessity, rather than social preference. The Economist reports:
"But not all stores are suffering equally. Independently owned ones, which account for two-thirds of Britain’s high streets, have fared better than chains, growing modestly in number in the past two years—though that rate is slowing. The number of independent bakeries on high streets rose by 17% from August 2011 to July 2012, according to Simply Business, an insurance provider."
There are plenty of possible solutions being experimented with. Brixton's got its alternative pound, Forest Hill tried to persuade people to spend £5 a week more locally through its Totally Locally day and Lewisham Council's Business Awards and Lewisham Life email service are admirable attempts to support local small businesses.
But the best way to help local business is to help them use the powerful tools already at their disposal.
Social media is not only a great leveller for small business - providing them with free, ubiquitous tools to reach customers - it actually gives local companies an advantage over chains.
Firstly, the management cost of social media is lower for local business. Most big businesses struggle to give local managers the degree of freedom necessary to engage their customers. They live in fear of Wonga-like episodes that will damage their brand reputation, or they expect any communication to go through the same sorts of sign-off processes that a press release would. Independent businesses don't have to worry about such bureaucracy.
Secondly, social media is more effective for local business, thanks to the community network effect. People want to show their support for small business and, for example, will be more likely to share news about an independent retailer than a supermarket brand. You don't have to be Brockley Market to command local loyalty and cache, as Jay's Budgens in Crofton Park has shown. Social media also attaches a premium to the unique. Would a photo of a Tesco aisle have generated the same response that this Brockley Rise newsagent did?
In a report called The Case for Universal Digitisation (2012), Booz & Co says:
"Most UK SMEs lag far behind their international peers—in both the front and back office. If these enterprises adopted digital technologies, thereby growing as fast as more digitised SMEs, Booz & Company estimates that they could unlock up to £18.8 billion of annual incremental revenues."
Speaking at a Paley Center event we attended last week, Katherine Oliver of the Commissioner's NYC Mayor's Office said:
"[Our Small Business Services team] is really important, helping small businesses grow in the city of New York. We created a digital toolkit, partnering with Mashable, teaching businesses how to build a website, how to use Twitter to promote their business. These are small mom and pop companies and cultural institutions, that don't have the wherewithal to use social media. We're making it work for New York but it could be adaptable for other places."
Working to get local businesses online seems like the most effective strategy for supporting them. This needs to be the focus, going forward.
Fortunately, this year, seems to be the moment when Brockley businesses began to embrace social. Perhaps inspired by the success of relative newcomers like The Orchard and El's Kitchen, many more established firms like Magi, Mr Lawrence, and most recently, Geddes, have dipped their toes in the Twitter stream. Meze Mangal stormed YouTube with this effort last year too.
BC's mission is to make SE4 the best-connected part of the country. Brockley business needs to socialise. Here's a list of local businesses with a Twitter feed. It's a start.