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“Online shopping is killing the high street” say the headlines.

The fashion industry, in particular, has now been well and truly tech-ified. Most of us seem quite happy about that, becoming regular customers with brands like Asos and BooHoo. We happily buy books, food, luxury items, services and media online and – for the most part – feel like everyone’s getting a good deal. Clearly, Amazon and the others are making a killing, but the efficiency their scale brings has legitimate value, right?

The Apparent Cost of eCommerce: Tumbleweed High Streets

If there is a hidden cost, it seems to be the demise of our local high streets. eCommerce’s perpetual rise has, quite tangibly, come at the expense our increasingly tired and lacklustre shopping districts, with their well-intentioned but tragically unfashionable stores and inefficient (overpriced!) independent shops.

To ensure the online movement doesn’t kill local business entirely, there’s a growing movement to shop local, buy regional and support community businesses. Among the many benefits of this consumer philosophy: it keeps money within the community; it encourages a strong community spirit; it reduces excessive transportation logistics; it allows producers to genuinely understand and respond to their customers; we can all have a nice warm glow about it.

Is ‘tech’, ‘eCommerce’, ‘online shopping’ really the enemy here, though? I’d argue the positive effect online shopping has had on local business (if not shops themselves) vastly outweighs its damaging effects.

Tech’s Opportunity Bounty for Local Community Businesses

Consider two ‘local’ entrepreneurs, one setting up in 1997, the other in 2017 – before and after the digital revolution. Certainly, the latter experiences almost exponentially more competition than the former. But they also benefit from thousands of entirely new sales channels, opened up by brand new online marketplaces like eBay, Etsy, Amazon Marketplace and an enormous number of new, niche online destinations.

Yes, tech may be killing the high street – but it’s also empowering local business communities by providing access to unprecedented consumer markets.

So, what if we still want to buy local? Is it even possible to support your community through these new online marketplaces – or will the option of local shopping die with the high street boutique and the independent grocer?

Well, actually, it seems there are more and more online marketplaces catered to connecting hyper-local businesses with consumers. Websites like Gumtree, Etsy, JustEat, CheckATrade sell nothing themselves, but rather take a commission for the visibility, functionality and customer service they provide as middle-men. SMEs can also use rapid-deploy self-build

SMEs can also use rapid-deploy self-build website platforms like Squarespace and Wix, benefiting from Google’s increasingly locally-aware search engine results.

Where Has Tech Got ‘Local’ Marketplacing Right, (And What Needs More Attention?)

Some industries and sectors are brilliantly catered for the local businessperson by the current crop of online marketplaces:

  • LUXURY CRAFTS – We love the idea of buying direct from the maker. Etsy, Notonthehighstreet and others are ideal for small scale hobby crafts and even bespoke personalised items, searchable by maker’s country and even town.

  • DINING – No local market is better served than eating out. You can research local gems on TripAdvisor, order classic takeaway on JustEat or from an even wider range of restaurants on Deliveroo. Yes – these services hold a potentially-troublesome monopoly (and extract significant commission) but at least they’ve empowered rather than annihilated local businesses.
  • SECOND HAND FURNITURE – Perhaps most successful of all, Gumtree, eBay Craigslist and others do a brilliant job of ‘matching demand with excess capacity’ (or ‘reselling junk’) with minimal middlemanism and maximum local convenience.
  • DOMESTIC TRADES – Tech’s done a brilliant job of battling against the rogue trader. Marketplaces like Checkatrade not only connect customers with tradespeople, they also bring up standards through public reviews – Yellow Pages never achieved that!

Online, local-searchable marketplaces have the potential to boost a whole host of other SME-stalwart industries too…

  • PROFESSIONAL SERVICES – where would you start if looking for a financial advisor, a solicitor or counsellor? Probably “Ask friends for recommendations”, right? There’s no harm there – except connections are highly random, and network size (rather than quality) is prized above all. Beyond referrals, the sector battles for business in inefficient markets where odds are stacked in the favour of big corporates over local sole traders and SMEs: brand partnerships; campaign advertising; SEO rankings.
  • GROCERIES & FMCG – Big supermarkets utterly dominate here. The provenance of the food you eat or products you buy is almost entirely controlled by just a few big buyers. Anyone choosing to buy local currently can expect a hefty additional bill (gone are those economies of scale), but surely a better local grocery market is in the realm of tech possibility.

  • ARTS & CULTURE – I used to work in this industry. With no established online marketplace whatsoever for live culture, battling against big media entertainment is just that: a battle! There’s so much creative potential in our communities – why can’t we have a ‘Ticketmaster’ that actually works for local culture? Something that can give local culture a big, high profile brand presence. [Ahem, Arts Council funding!!]

Not to mention…

  • JOBS – Still an absolute jumble of communications mess.
  • LOCAL MEDIA – Why are we relying on Facebook (a ‘news feed’ with no actual reporters) to replace the decimated local newspaper industry?
  • POLITICS – The internet could provide an extraordinarily open-access town-hall for discussion and community contribution.

Who’s Inventing Local Business’ Future…? Techpreneurs? Local Businesses? Policy-Makers? Everyone?

Tech titans wield ever-greater power to affect our community lives. The examples above prove the system has often worked in communities’ favour.

There is, though, a continuing need for all of us to demand – or at least take an interest in – local provenance. The more of us who take an interest, the more likely marketplaces will be to add a ‘search by postcode’ widget to their eCommerce site. And that could literally be the difference between thriving and squeezed-out local businesses.

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