"I'm just popping down the shops". A familiar refrain from the past, and one councils up and down the country are hoping to encourage once again. Despite the rise of out-of-town shopping centres and mega-stores stacked floor to ceiling with in your face bargain buckets, councils are doing what they can to support local businesses and small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs).
We are having a little help through things like the Portas pilots and Town Team Partners which is very welcome indeed (if not really enough to fundamentally change the game). These fund high streets to improve themselves, encourage people to return to shopping locally and supporting the markets at the heart of any town older than their local MP.
All of this is laudable, but I was wondering recently; in a digital age, how can councils support e-high streets?
When you need to buy something you start with two choices; do I buy it online, or do I buy it from a physical shop? If you plump for the latter you then have the added question of 'do I buy it locally?' or 'do I visit a big chain shop?' Shop local campaigns encourage the former as this encourages and supports a local economy (83 pence of every pound spent with a local business goes back into the local economy) and that does more to improve local areas than the same levels of spending at large chain stores.
However, if you decide to buy online usually you simply go with Google. If you're anything like me you type a product into Google and search through the first few suggestions including probably e-bay and Amazon, Tesco and Sainsburys, Currys and Argos. Unless I have a specific recommendation or need I rarely search around for an online version of my local shops.
According to recent research, last year shoppers spent 12% more online than they did the year before, when over £50bn was spent over the web in the UK. Yes, thats billion with a b. Apparently the biggest benefitters of this spending were department stores; I couldn't find any stats detailing how much went to SMEs but I suspect it is dwarfed by the departmental behemoths.
It seems that councils are happy to spend money on renovating High Streets through putting new paving down, improving lighting, funding new signage and encouraging take-up of unused units. Part of the benefit is for the businesses themselves, but of course this also has the side benefit of improving the geographical centre of most towns, villages and boroughs. However, if the benefit of businesses is of paramount importance, could diverting a proportion of available funding towards encouraging them to develop their online presence bear significant dividends?
Many local shops don't have a website, getting no closer to an online presence than a listing on Yellow Pages or other similar directories. Of those that do have an online presence, many go no further than listing their contact information and perhaps a little detail about what the business does. Of those who go a little further, many simply detail some company history and showcase a couple of examples of previous work.
How much could these businesses benefit from a professionally designed website, complete with proper logos, well drafted and laid out text, clear links with relevant social media and where appropriate the ability to make online purchases? None of these things are difficult to do, and over time could seriously impact positively on a hitherto untapped income stream.
Why not go further and support the development of an online local high street, solely populated by local SMEs? Amazon have proven that it is possible to act as a central point for people to visit and buy things from other companies; such a system could therefore also be established under the Council's guidance and for the exclusive use of local SMEs. This would be self funding in the long run, with a fraction of any sales made via the portal going towards sustaining it, and once established would need minimal maintenance (though lots of work encouraging participating SMEs to keep their own sites and catalogues live and current).
Having the Council backing this sort of scheme would also help to generate a bit of trust in local businesses to ensure they delivered what was expected. Were they to prove not to be up to scratch then support would stop and they would be de-listed from the central Portas-Portal (Yes, I know what I called it - I'm not above a bit of shameless promotion if it helps cement an idea).
As I bounced this idea off my retail-friendly better half I was asked whether this would put undue strain on local businesses as they might not be able to keep up with the process of picking and packing goods bought online. I replied that surely this was a good thing, and that if indeed such a situation arose it would be generating new income and therefore able to fund the hiring of new staff to run it (with the side benefit of increasing local employment into the bargain).
I know there are hundreds of details that would need to be worked out, and a lot of leg work would need to be done to get local businesses onside. I also know that this would to some degree rely on both effective local advertising as well as an element of help from Google (other search engines are available) to enable LocalHighStreet.com or whatever it would be called to appear prominently in search rankings, but it has to be worth a shot. Even if we could only divert 0.001% of the online spend to more local businesses across the country that would be an extra £50m in their pockets, which would dwarf the money invested by government already.
With no end in sight to the growth of online spending perhaps we should spend a little in starting an online battle for hearts and minds that could be a game changer.
Come on Portas, show us your Portal.