Is social media helping or hurting our high street?

Over lockdown, we saw how our independent high street retailers innovatively used social media and online shopping to keep in touch with their customers as their brick and mortar versions were forced shut. Will ‘going online’ be the future of the high street?

You may have been following Helen Fisher from SNAP on video as she zipped around on her bike delivering products online while her shop was closed, through orders she took on Instagram. Or noticed that even traditional market stall owners like Marc Herbert’s Fruit and Vegetables were popping up on your Instagram feed.

It was inspiring to see these independent high street shops, unhindered by the large PR machinery of large chains, nimbly use social media in innovative ways. Especially so in the face of a steady drip feed of stories over the last decade about how local high streets have been losing out to online shopping, which saw another major increase of market share thanks to the pandemic. 

ONS Data from May of this year showed that a third of all retail sales in the UK were online, up from one-fifth in February. Meanwhile, in the real-world market, 13,867 high street shops have permanently closed during the pandemic, according to the Centre for Retail Research.

So is social media, which is free and enables small businesses to directly connect with their customers, a boon to our small, independently owned high street shops?  And if the marketplace becomes truly digital, what does that mean for the high street? 

For Franceso Ragazzi, owner of Cafe Quarantacinque in Globe Town, social media is a useful marketing tool. ‘I mainly use Instagram. It helps me to tell my existing customers if I’ve got a new product in, for instance.’ And over lockdown, he found that new people were discovering him on the app too. 

‘I guess, people were spending more time online.’ That’s why, he says, ‘visuals are everything.’ (Ragazzi is also a trained photographer.)

However, for others, social media is a necessary chore, much like doing one’s taxes. 

Marc Herbert of Herbert’s Fruit and Veg stall is very much from traditional, East End market stall stock who took over the business from his father. But lockdown forced him on Instagram (at the urging of his wife) where he used private messaging to deliver his fruit and vegetable boxes. 

Herbert has never delivered produce before the pandemic, but he does so regularly now. In his and Ragazzi’s cases, social media has allowed them to expand their businesses.

But despite the fact that social media has not only allowed Herbert to continue serving his existing customers but also to reach new ones (‘Most of my deliveries are new people who found me on Instagram,’ he says), being digital goes against his nature.

‘I didn’t want to go on it, really,’ he says. ‘It’s still all about the stall for me. It’s been here for so long. People know where I am. And people get to touch and see the things I sell.’ Indeed, the varied saturated colours of his fruit and vegetables stand out against the rainy grey backdrop of Globe Town.

But for others, like Helen Fisher from SNAP, social media is a fun and personal way for her to connect with her customers, rather than an established business strategy. Throughout lockdown, she did informal deliveries through Insta stories and documenting her trips on there too. 

Certainly, our high street shop-owners know that Instagram, with its strong visual and easy messaging apps, makes it an ideal, affordable way to connect with customers over a virtual marketplace when the real one was closed over lockdown. 

And the statistics show that Instagram is a great shopping platform. Have you seen a particularly nice-looking item on Instagram and couldn’t not resist clicking on it, even as you see the little paid sign? You’re not alone. As of 2020, there are over one billion active users on Instagram, and at 80% follow at least one brand. 

So then, is social media the saviour of independent shops? It is not so simple. Apps like Instagram and Deliveroo are also companies focused on creating profits and this tends to affect newer shops on our high street.

David Amoateng from Mama Mae’s bakery, which opened in January, says digital platforms are a double edged sword for him. 

‘You want to be on all these delivery apps because it does expose you to new customers. But it is tricky because the service fees they charge eat into your profits. ‘

‘There’s a lot of cost to advertising yourself online and especially since I’m independent, it can be hard to balance that out.’

But Amoateng is very much an artist, and likes the creative aspect of social platforms. 

‘I’m going to do baking and decorating classes for kids on Instagram and maybe even Tik-Tok,’ he says, perking up.

But, all of the shop owners agree that nothing quite replaces a real life customer experience, and this arguably specially holds true for those Roman Road with its established, market traditions. 

The evidence of those long relationships is easy to see. Many of Roman Road’s shopkeepers greet their customers with familiarity, resembling something closer to a friendship than a typical customer relationship. 

Marc Herbert, during our interview, jokes with a returning customer about a BBC interview in which he was featured a couple of years ago. 

A moment later his grandmother drops by to drop off some cupcakes for him, wheeled in her chair by his mother.

‘There are some customers here who have been with us since his dad,’ his mother says, while Herbert is serving some more customers. ‘And it would be a shame to lose that stall.’ 

Ragazzi from Cafe Quarantacinque greets a young woman with a cheerful ‘Ciao, good to see you back again,’ and they briefly discuss her new job that takes her to West London (hence why she doesn’t come here as often). 

‘It was definitely good to see her. She’s been coming here for years.’ he says. 

Yes, our independent shop owners are shown they could pivot during lockdown like the best of them, turning to social media to maintain relationships with existing customers and also gain new ones. And if you’re anything like this writer, it is great to know when your favourite cafe announces a new item on its menu. And throughout the pandemic, it has been heartening to know that we could get supplies from our grocery shop at the touch of a button.

And now, with warnings about increasing coronavirus cases and restrictions that might affect many of our high street shops, it looks like the flexibility afforded by digital apps will be here to stay.

But scrolling through a menu on Deliveroo is not the same as brick and mortar shops. Those relationships, the social ties between those of us who use the high street are an important part of living in this area, and for some, is part of the cultural fabric that we inherited whether we are newcomers, or have roots here. To repeat a phrase heard by many of those in this article, ‘Digital [platforms] are a useful tool, but it is not a replacement.’

If you liked this article, you might like to read about our piece on whether the pandemic will be the death or rebirth of the high street.

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