By Kate Rogers
Before the emergence of the coronavirus in the UK, high streets ups and down the country were already feeling the strain of the continued expansion of online shopping, as well as rising business rates. The traditional high street had already, long ago, morphed into shopping districts of big chain brands, often with multiple franchises replicated on the same street. But those big brands have been critically hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, with many filing for administration in the face of lost revenue during lockdown. In the short-term, the countless jobs lost is the most important issue to tackle. Longer-term, though, could these shifts mean that a more independent high street might return in our recovery?
Across the country, footfall on major high streets dramatically decreased after non-essential shops were forced to close back in March – some believe by over 80%. This has clearly taken its toll: as of early June, UK high street brands Oasis, Warehouse, Debenhams, Cath Kidston and Laura Ashley had filed for administration. Although non-essential shops are slowly reopening, any recovery or return to ‘a new normal’ will be slow considering social distancing measures are needed for the foreseeable future.
At first glance in Liverpool, the telling signs of the pandemic are clear to see. Some areas of the city that are usually busy with shoppers – such as Church Street – stand deserted, with shuttered shops and barely anyone to be seen.
But this isn’t the full story. Liverpool’s independent business scene has soared in the last decade, with many choosing to dine, shop, or drink locally and independently – and an influx of new independent businesses have established themselves in the city.
At the heart of this resurgence has been the platform Independent Liverpool. Established in 2013 by David Williams and Oliver Press as a blog encouraging people to support local independents, the initiative soon grew and rolled out a discount card to use in independent businesses across the city. They have since gone on to release an app which lists and maps over 100 independent shops and eateries across the city, promoting their use.
Williams and Press also went on to found indoor street food hub Baltic Market. Since its launch in 2017, it has enjoyed enormous success, allowing small independent food businesses to use the space to help them grow effectively as well as help promote the thriving independent scene. Many vendors who were established here have gone on to open their own restaurants – further expanding the independent community into other areas of the city.
Liverpool’s rise in independents highlights a changing relationship on the high street. Increasingly, people tend to be drawn to the independent sector, which often coincides with hyperlocal high streets, as it offers something unique which a lot of chain-brand major high streets cannot give. People grow more intimate, loyal relationships with such independent businesses, and this has played a role in why many communities have continued to support independents during this lockdown period in any way they can. And independent businesses have adapted and responded with innovative offerings and survival strategies such as new online shops, free local delivery, gift vouchers and more.
The pandemic period has magnified this change to support independents. Whilst the streets of Liverpool may be quiet, Independent Liverpool has continued to advocate the importance of supporting local independent businesses across the city. “In true independent and scouse fashion, the independent scene has blown people away,” says Williams. “Places have adapted, repurposed, reopened in extremely safe ways and the support they’ve seen has been quite emotional. Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a Disney book, so the happily-ever-after you’re looking for won’t be applicable to many. But one thing you can guarantee is our city’s indies won’t go down without a fight.”
Casa Italia is a well-known and loved family-run restaurant in the city centre. “We have pivoted our restaurant to a delivery business entirely and we did this overnight one week before lockdown,” says owner Arran Bordi. “Our customers have been excellent and supported us by ordering takeaways and being very understanding when things go wrong.”
Although closed, not-for-profit community bookshop News From Nowhere has been delivering local orders by bike, helping people browse bookshelves via social media, organising a supporters’ credit account and offering lucky dip book parcels; due to massive local support it has ‘seen an unprecedented amount of orders lately’. Community-owned bakery Homebaked, shuttered in lockdown, launched a temporary frozen pie delivery service called ‘Awaybaked’.
These independent businesses have been able to survive this unprecedented time due to their appeal to the local audience which they have established. The loyalty of their customers, coupled with the adaptation of their businesses by harnessing the use of the internet has proved to be integral to their survival.
There is certainly a change ahead for the UK’s high streets. The real impacts will only become clear after all businesses are back up and running. But what this period of crisis has shown is that independent businesses have gathered large amounts of support and people’s loyalty has proved to be invaluable, sparking real hope for a resurgence of the independent high street.
Kate Rogers is a university student and Liverpool-based writer