High Streets Initiative · 6 December 2018

Small Business Saturday founder Michelle Ovens reveals why independent retailers may outlive big-name “dinosaurs”

small-business-saturday-michelle ovens
Michelle Ovens with Mayor of London Sadiq Khan

Following a hugely successful Small Business Saturday 2018, Business Advice sat down with the initiative’s founder, Michelle Ovens, to hear her thoughts on the future of independent retail, and why discount days like Black Friday won’t save small high street businesses.

Small Business Saturday, the annual event that brings together small businesses and consumers in a show of solidarity, toasted its fifth birthday over the weekend, and what a birthday it has been.

With the most successful Black Friday spend on record, and the frequent sensationalist articles about “the death of the high street”, it’s been a trying year for the high street and its associated small businesses.

But there is evidence that consumers, institutions and larger businesses alike want small British businesses to survive and thrive. How do we know this? Because Small Business Saturday experienced it’s most successful outing ever.

#SmallBizSatUK 2018: The stats

  • £812m total spend
  • 8% increase in sales on 2017
  • 2 of the UK’s top 5 trending hashtags on the day
  • Supported by 250 business organisations
  • Public support from the prime minister, chancellor and Mayor of London

Bringing the initiative across to the UK was the brainchild of leading retail consultant and self-confessed “data obsessive” Michelle Ovens, who approached American Express to import Small Business Saturday from the US back in 2013.

“I saw that the British high street and associated small businesses were at a crossroads”, she says.

“There was this hangover from the recession, and retail simply had not sprung back. With the advent of digital retail services at the same time, physical retailers were risking behind left behind forever,” she continues.

Feeling both frustrated and sad at what was happening, or not happening with small businesses, Ovens decided to develop an initiative that could repair and boost this economy, the result was Small Business Saturday.

Despite her impressive record for fighting for the rights of small businesses – she is a director of small business campaigner peak b, and holds an MBE for her services to the small business economy – Ovens is humble, and insists that Small Business Saturday wasn’t all her.

She maintains it was a real grass movement, and one that was created due to strong calls for help from within the small business community itself:

“Small Business Saturday is about lots of people rolling up their sleeves and getting involved”, says Ovens.

The support isn’t just coming from the grassroots either, the quest to save small businesses has struck a nerve with companies large and small, and has even forged partnerships between political enemies:

“We’ve had the support of major organisations such The Federation of Small Businesses, American Express, the Palace, central government and even cross-party support for Small Business Saturday right from day one,” says Ovens.

“We’ve always supported the fact that everyone is welcome to join Small Business Saturday.

“Whether that’s small businesses themselves, big companies that want to support small businesses, or even consumers, it’s really the more the merrier. I think that’s why we’ve been so successful – because everyone can get involved and support what we’re doing”, she adds.

With her industry experience, and what seems like a genuine love for the tradition of the British high street, she devised Small Business Saturday as a sort of awareness accelerator programme, where small businesses could gain the skills and advice they needed to play catch-up with larger and digital retailers.

This even includes a free digital skills workshop that can be found online.

What’s most interesting about Ovens is that she truly understands the struggle of leading a small business:

“I am small business myself,” says Ovens. “I’ve been working as a small business strategy consultant for over fifteen years”, she adds.

All this considered, I doubt you could find a better Small Business ambassador, with as much experience to lead Small Business Saturday than Ovens herself.

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Bricks and mortar V ecommerce

When I ask her if considering this year’s Black Friday success, alongside news of the high street’s decline, whether 2019 will see a “fight to the death” between the high street and digital, alongside a battle on the high street itself between chain retailers and independents, she seems unphased in her response:

“High street retailers, and especially independents, can’t turn the clock back to thirty years ago.”

“Digital retailers are here to stay,” she adds, “as they perform a certain and specific kind of retail service. Well, namely quick buys.”

“However, I believe there’s room for this alongside independent high street retailers, where consumers will visit their local high street for the social experience, and the tailored and personable customer service that only small independent businesses are able to give”, she says.

“If anything, it’s the big high street retailers that are most in danger of becoming retail dinosaurs.”

Ovens also wants to assure small businesses that they shouldn’t feel pressured into engaging in large-scale discount events like Black Friday, but why?

Because these “retail holidays” were not designed for them, so how could they hope to benefit from them? Ovens explains in more detail.

“Black Friday was devised to reignite the spending lull in the States following Thanksgiving, it was created in mind for the huge retailers, who had the capacity to offer huge vast discounts on their products.”

“Small Businesses trying to engage with this sort of culture is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, it simply won’t work,” she adds.

“Instead, small businesses should focus on developing what they do best, namely offering a stellar customer service, and truly listening to their loyal customers, do they want a new product in the shop? Then order it in!”

“That level of nimbleness and responsiveness will be a big winner for small businesses as the years go on.”

Leveraging Small Business Saturday for year-round success

So, both digital and bricks and mortar retailers can co-exist in relative harmony, but does Ovens have any advice on strategies for the year ahead?

“Be a bit creative with your business model”, says Ovens.

“You need to be aware of your community’s needs, be sensitive to the fact that some people may not have a lot of money to spend at particular times of the year, such as at Christmas time.”

“If you devise things such as extended payment plans for customers, especially if you’re a butcher business, for example, you can actually cultivate a warmer customer relationship and increase loyalty.

“You see this strategy working across the sectors, including hairdressing, where offering customers subscription-based services can encourage business. That’s incredibly important when non-crucial services like hairdressing are among the first things to be affected when consumers tighten their purse strings.”

She adds: “Small businesses are busy, I understand that. After all, who has the time for strategic thinking when you’re running one!? However doing so can really help your business succeed in the long-term.”

Ovens also suggests that small business owners get comfortable with digital as quickly as they can.

“Think about the competition out there online, it’s quick and it’s cheap. But if you are able to introduce your quality goods and services online, consumers have another option.”

“Also think about our awful winter weather”, she adds. “Say your high street is flooded or snowed under and people can’t get to your store. If you’ve got an online presence too, it isn’t as much of a disaster.”

Talking about the long-term generally, it was evident from our conversation that Small Business Saturday isn’t simply about one day at all.

“Running a small business is about emotion, human connections and community.”

Although the day itself involved a great outpouring of public support, and explosive social media shares, for Ovens and her team, it’s about ensuring that support continues all year round.

When remarking on her personal highlights from this year’s event, Ovens tells a tale that wasn’t dissimilar to the Beatles’ famed docu-film, “The Magical Mystery Tour”:

“My team boarded a bus for nine weeks and set about touring the country ahead of the event”, says Ovens.

Just like the 1960s film, The Small Business Saturday bus tour produced similar feelings of emotion and togetherness within communities.

This was how Michelle and her Small Business Saturday team could make those vital connections with consumers, and most importantly, small business owners, and assure them that they were not alone.

“The most inspiring moment for me was when we were able to take a number of small business owners on our bus to Westminster, where they met Philip Hammond, and could speak, literally, to the heart of government”, she adds.

“When we do that, there’s always someone who cries, and that’s ok. Running a small business is about emotion, human connections and community.”

And just how heartwarming and gut-wrenchingly true those words are.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Annie May is the Reporter at Real Business. Following her graduation from LSE, she embarked upon a freelance career in current affairs journalism. Annie has written on subjects varying from African history and contemporary politics to community business and current affairs news in London. At Real Business, Annie is passionate about highlighting inclusive and diverse business disruptors and organisations for our evolving readership. Annie believes in fostering community inclusion and has volunteered for organisations such as Fairfield House, a UK based Rastafari centre and a senior citizen association for ethnic minority men and women.

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