Lancashire retailers working hard at innovation as cost of living crisis hits trade

As the cost of living crisis deepens , Lancashire’s independent retailers say they are coming under the double pressure of increasing costs and weakening trade, a situation reflected in the latest retail figures from the Office of National Statistics.

By Tim Gavell
Tuesday, 24th May 2022, 12:30 pm

The ONS said retail sales in the UK rose by 1.4 per cent in April, in part driven by an increase in the amount that people bought from food stores, which rose by 2.8 per cent. Supermarkets did bigger trade in alcohol and tobacco, while sales of actual food remained largely unchanged.

But sales for non-food shops dropped by 0.6 per cent in April, the ONS said.

Meanwhile consumer confidence is now weaker than during the global banking crisis or the lockdown as cost of living pressures escalate, according to a long-running survey.

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Shoppers in Fishergate, Preston. While Preston's footfall has been bearing up, many retailers are finding it tough going as the cost of living crisis bites hard

GfK’s Consumer Confidence Index fell two points to minus 40 in May, its lowest score since records began in 1974.

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GfK client strategy director Joe Staton said: “Consumer confidence is now weaker than in the darkest days of the global banking crisis, the impact of Brexit on the economy, or the Covid shutdown.”

Joanne Maclachlan, owner of Chorley-based The Eco Friendly Living Co, said the data from the ONS painted a complex picture, but retailers were feeling the pinch and having to look at new ways to attract business.

Joanne Maclachlan, owner of Chorley-based The Eco Friendly Living Co said retailers are having to find alternatives to battle on through the cost of living crisis

She and several other small businesses in Chorley have been taking pop-up stalls in Chorley town centre such as the recent The Eco Friendly Living Co and Friends Pop Up Shop at Shepherds Hall Ale House &and Victoria Rooms.

She said: “It's difficult to understand this data, but clearly people are staying in and are focused on the essentials.

"As a small retailer myself, I am having to fight harder for sales than ever before.

"For me, the cost of living crisis is more severe than the pandemic as a lot of customers supported small businesses during the various lockdowns. People can't afford to do the same now.

Joanne Maclachlan, owner of Chorley-based The Eco Friendly Living Co has been using pop-up shop events to win new customers

"We attend regular farmers' markets and both footfall and sales are down at every single one as people don't have the money that they used to.”

Sarah Braebaum who has run her handmade sewing business in Chorley, The Gingham Flamingo, for 10 years said getting through the pandemic was tough but she survived by using her her skills to make face masks while also donating her time and fabrics to provide NHS staff free scrubs bags.

She said: “It’s still a struggle to earn a living being a trader. I have seen a number of her fellow traders businesses fold and earnings can be inconsistent. The public really supported small businesses during the pandemic but it has certainly quietened down this year, which could be due to the ever increasing costs of living that we’re all facing. But I am excited to take part in the pop-up events.”

Sarah is also working on writing and running a business course and topical e-books, along with running creative workshops.

Sarah Braebaum of The Gingham Flamingo in Chorley has been also attending the pop-up shop events

Sarah Conway from the For the Love of Plants shop in Pall Mall, Chorley, said belt-tightening was obvious.

She said: “As a business that is less than 12 months old, growing a customer base was already difficult with the competition of supermarkets and large retailers having better prices or deals that draw the customer in. But at the moment it feels even harder to engage people and get steady trade.

"Nothing is ever certain with business but there's usually the reliability of weekends and monthly paydays bringing extra trade, but even that isn't a dead cert at the moment, the past two months have seen some of the worst weekends I've traded since opening and each one seems to get worse than the last.

"With inflation and cost of living being at the forefront of people's minds, the worry for a lot of businesses is that they will be abandoned due to the belief that small businesses are expensive, and customers will reserve their shopping for luxury items with the online retailers.”

Paul Foster development manager with the Federation of Small Businesses in the county, said said: “Many retailers continue to find business a struggle as they try to cope with rising costs on the one hand with customers tightening their belts on the other.

"Retailers are reluctant to put their prices up but they are being hit with increased premises costs particularly with energy prices, higher staff costs and higher prices for the products they buy in.

Sarah Braebaum The Gingham Flamingo at one of the pop-up shop events in Chorley

“Customers are worried about their own household finances so are being careful with spending, looking for value and putting off buying more expensive items like electrical goods or furniture.

“Most retailers have already made cuts in their business so cant cut back much more. They can only focus on trying to keep sales up by looking at how they can offer customers value and making sure they promote this so that they keep people coming through the door.”

But the picture is not all bad. In Preston, with the number of people visiting the shops baring up well, according to Mark Whittle from the Preston Business Improvement District.

He said: “Footfall remains encouraging, the latest weekly data unsurprisingly showing an increase compared to 2021, ahead of the UK average, however, what is more encouraging is that footfall is only marginally behind 2019 here in Preston, whereas the UK average, in comparison, is significantly behind 2019.

“That said, the absence of office workers and commuters in the city centre is still apparent.

“In terms of retail performance there are mixed messages, whilst some businesses are clearly experiencing ‘belts being tightened’, others are performing well, some with huge increases compared to trade in 2019.

“We would like to thank shoppers for their continued support of the high street and ask that they continue to shop local.”