Local shops are dying. Battered by the big boys, bruised by spiralling costs, and weakened by the economic downturn, independent retailers are haemorrhaging sales and clinging onto life by a thread. Or at least that's what the nation's legion of local and national newspapers, analysts, and even some retailers would have people believe.
The phrase 'ghost town Britain' is now so regularly coined that it brings up more than 802,000 hits on online search engine Google, and barely a day goes by without some story imploring shoppers to support their local retailers, or risk losing them for ever.
Of course, the sentiment is right. Local indies are the lifeblood of many communities and it's vital that they are supported, but the message is all wrong.
As a retailer, you wouldn't order a product just to stop it from being delisted, you'd buy it because you knew customers demanded it, and it offered something that other brands didn't. It's exactly the same with shopping locally. Shoppers shouldn't be forced into doing it through guilt, they should do it because they want to, because the independent retailers in their streets offer them great service, friendly and knowledgable staff, and unique products. In short, shopping local should be fun.
Diana Bird, founder of the Wedge Card loyalty scheme for independent retailers, and daughter of Big Issue founder John Bird, explains: "Telling people not to shop at the supermarkets is pointless, and that's not what we are trying to do. We don't want people to pity smaller stores, we want them to see just how amazing they are. The majority of independent retailers are exceptional people and there are so many fantastic shops out there just waiting to be discovered," she says.
The Wedge Card scheme encourages its independent retailer members to dream up innovative promotions for card holders. "One of our members offers free coffee each time it rains," Bird says, "it certainly sticks in people's minds."
Shoppers pay £10 to buy a Wedge Card for their local area which gives them access to a range of exciting incentives to shop regularly at participating stores. As well as heightened customer loyalty, members also benefit from advertising in the quarterly Wedge magazine, The Big Issue and on the Wedge Card website. Another Wedge Card member offers card holders 10% off sandwiches between 12 and 2pm, and there's also a store which offers card-holders 10% off all cold food to go.
"We want shoppers to be excited about shopping at their local stores," Diana adds. "Let's face it - shopping is a massive part of our lives and it should be an experience, not a chore. It's only by showing people how unique independent stores are that we will get them to change their shopping habits."
One lady who's become a real pro at adding spice and colour to the shopping experience is independent retailer Jill White. Her store, The Little Stour Farm Shop in the picturesque village of Wingham, near Canterbury, is an exemplary member of the Produced in Kent scheme, which encourages consumers to buy regionally produced food and drink from
their local store.
With the help of her daughter Alex, Jill has made a roaring success of the store and won several awards along the way including the coveted accolade of Kent Local Food Retailer of the Year 2008. The Little Stour Farm Shop has a number of elements which have propelled it well above the competition. A comprehensive mix of fresh and chilled locally grown produce is one, and fantastic customer service is another. But the store's real unique selling point is of a more fluffy nature.
The store is surrounded by acres of glorious Kent countryside which has enabled Jill and Alex to keep a wide variety of farm animals. From pocket-sized quails to fat, boisterous pigs the store is a veritable Noah's Ark, and locals visit regularly to pet and even buy its occupants.
Brightly painted tables and chairs have been cleverly scattered in and around the various animal enclosures providing a welcome place for a cup of coffee and a slice of home-made cake. The mother- and-daughter team have also come up with the novel idea of providing a 'Pick Your Own Picnic' section in the store. Shoppers can choose from a selection of breads, hams, cheeses and cold drinks before going to sit and eat it all in the surrounding fields.
And Alex and Jill say they have noticed a seismic shift in the way shoppers in their area view local products and shopping. "The supermarkets make a big song and dance about local foods but in comparison to us they are only really paying lip-service to it, and shoppers are getting wise to the fact," she adds.
At The Little Stour Farm Shop, local really does mean local. The majority of products are sourced from farms within walking distance of the store, and Jill even tops up her offer with fruit and vegetables that she has grown herself. "If a customer wants to buy some beans and I've sold out, all they have to do is wait 10 minutes for me to go into my field and I'll pick them some more," she adds.
Buying locally also helps keep money in the local community, something which Jill is very keen to do. "Last week a local man came in with some salad dressings that he'd made. They tasted fabulous so I told him to go home, bottle and label them properly and then bring them back for me to sell for him. It's a win-win situation for everyone, particularly the shoppers as they get a great product which not only tastes good but also helps support the local economy."
Another positive scheme which encourages people to shop in their nearby independent stores, and keeps money within the community is a local currency.
The past six months have seen a number of UK towns and villages launch their own currencies to promote their independent retailers and ride out the financial storm. The latest town to jump on the bandwagon is Devizes in Wiltshire, while September will see the birth of the Brixton Pound. One of the most well established is the Lewes Pound in Sussex. There are currently 30,000 Lewes Pounds in circulation, and the scheme, which does not include national chains, has proved so successful that its organisers are now planning the launch of new five and 10 Lewes Pound notes. Like the Wedge Card scheme, traders who accept the Lewes Pound are encouraged to offer eye catching incentives for people to spend the Lewes Pound in their stores.
However, launching and sustaining all of these schemes is no mean feat. Coming up with exciting ideas to thrill shoppers takes time, something which, let's face it, the vast majority of hard-working independent retailers don't have a great deal of.
One man who is no stranger to this challenge is independent retailer Nigel Dowdney. In addition to running two stores in Norfolk, Nigel is also the chairman of the social enterprise scheme Buy Local Norfolk. The scheme promotes the area's independent traders in order to support the county's economy, and reduce carbon emissions associated with transporting products over long distances.
And it's not open to just anybody. Would-be members have to meet strict criteria before they are allowed to display the Buy Local Norfolk window sticker.
"Traders have to prove that they are local, that they use at least five other local businesses and, crucially, that they make their own buying decisions," explains Nigel.
He is particularly scornful of the proliferation of local newspaper campaigns urging people to shop locally, as most don't take into account whether a store is an independent or part of a chain. "I was in London last month and I saw a One Stop with a 'Shop Local' sticker in the window - it's completely missing the point, and most worrying of all is that it's confusing to shoppers," he says.
Once they pass the test, members of the Buy Local Norfolk scheme are supported by a raft of promotional material, including a new information guide which is available at all the county's museums and libraries, Park and Ride outlets, and summer events including the Royal Norfolk Show. Organisers are also hoping to get the Buy Local Norfolk logo stamped onto a number of Norwich's black cabs this summer.
"It's vital that we get the logo out there as much as possible so that shoppers recognise it and know that when they see it in a store window, they are entering a dedicated, well respected, and truly independent business," he says.
And one of the best things about the scheme is the camaraderie that it is instilling between local independent retailers, Nigel says. "Businesses are now starting to
use each other in ways that they never would have before."
And shoppers are profiting from the newly formed relationships in a big way. This month Nigel is helping one of the scheme's members, a local independent film maker, to produce a zombie horror movie in his c-store.
"It's going to be a great day, the staff are thrilled as some of them are going to appear as extras, and the local shoppers will have a scream watching it all," he says.
Shopping with zombies, now what could possibly be more exciting than that?