Writing this with the sun shining in, the day after the government announced its ‘roadmap’ for easing lockdown and opening up the economy, it is difficult not to feel cautiously optimistic.

James Rayner

It is an opportunity for retailers to get back to what they do best, as long as the provisional 12 April date for all non-essential shops to reopen is maintained.

The past year hasn’t been kind to the retail sector as a whole and it has provided a steep learning curve. Covid has forced businesses to embrace creativity. The retailers that will emerge in the best shape are those that have taken this disruption as a reason to diversify, focusing on building their online presence and curating digital experiences to build brand loyalty.

This past year has also shown that the digital world is a great leveller. Independent stores are on a much more even footing with larger chains and many are pioneers, delivering online content that has transformed the concept of brand engagement and has massively increased their customer base in doing so.

The beauty of online is that it doesn’t have geographical limitations, so small, independent stores have the ability to reach a global audience. They also have the agility to respond to changing consumer needs.

Among our own independent retailers at Coal Drops Yard in King’s Cross, we have seen Botanical Boys deliver terrariums to New York, California and even Australia. Its largest online workshop had 90 participants, and two thirds were joining from outside the UK.

Passion and knowledge

Earl of East transformed its candle-making classes, a typically sensory in-person experience, into a way for people to come together while at home. It is their passion and expert knowledge that have made these classes work and attracted people craving new experiences and connections.

Because of this, I believe that independent retail will continue to flourish as we emerge from the pandemic. As consumers, we will reassess our priorities and how we wish to spend our time.

With that comes a reassessment of the brands we want to interact with physically and the ones that are worth a trip beyond local retail centres. That is where independent brands led by people with true passion for their craft and understanding of their product will thrive, particularly those that have built up brand loyalty online supported by a physical presence.

Oxford Street

Source: Shutterstock/elenaburn

While we are still in the eye of a retail storm, as evidenced by the collapse of many large retail chains, destination retail — places people want to travel to visit — will endure. However, it will no longer be about the biggest brands but those that are the best at what they do.

This resizing of retail will be even more marked in London, but it is something to be celebrated, not scared of. London has shown its ability to renew itself time and again thanks to the creativity of the people it attracts.

Coming out of Covid, I have faith in the capital and everything it offers. London has always been a place of discovery, where something new can be found, and this is the next stage in that interesting journey — I for one can’t wait to see what new concepts rise from the crisis.

James Rayner is retail lead at King’s Cross