Independent retailers are leading the way when it comes to agility and sustainability. However, larger chains have been struggling to make a start on their Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives without coming off as inauthentic or green washing. Dr. Jackie Mulligan, CEO of ShopAppy explains why empowering local managers is the first step to an authentic CSR strategy.
It’s really great to see tech like ShopAppy supporting a sustainable high street. How has the reception been?
It’s being really well received, customers are so happy to have local alternatives. The reason aggregators like Amazon work is because it makes it so easy. So that’s what ShopAppy is trying to do, to create that platform with everything in one place, which is essentially what high street should be. Everything in one place, we’re just making it digital.
For small businesses, digitalisation has opened up more space to experiment and adapt without risking too much. Whether that’s a local baker putting ingredients together and doing a live bake along, an online appointment with the hairdresser to decide which hair colour you get delivered, or a cocktail making session on zoom with your local bartender. There’s been so much agility shown, and that’s because small businesses are completely aligned with their local community, so that intelligence is at a very granular, intuitive level. That doesn’t happen so much at chain stores because their priority is figures and stats, and they don’t encompass the lived experience of that community.
Digital is so important because it influences footfall and spend, as our high streets reopen, the pre-browsing before a visit becomes ever more important for increasing local spending – a digital shop window is key to success for our towns and cities, and I am pleased that we are at the forefront of providing that presence.
The natural answer to that would be to give managers more power at a local level.
Yes! Chain shop managers are not being empowered. These people are intelligent and attuned to their community. Retailers should be using their knowledge to make their business relevant and engaged with what’s going on, instead of making key decisions in a distant boardroom. You could have the most advanced tech stack in the world, but if you don’t know what your customers want at a local level, it could well be useless. There are certain limitations to an algorithm.
How are independent retailers leading the way in sustainability?
Independent stores are experimenting more with upcycling, swapping and hiring. I think that consumption is something that we’re getting more conscious of. This pandemic has really emphasised the importance of social interaction and I think the high street will begin to focus more on experience and gathering places.
What’s fabulous to see is more businesses setting up with the desire to change the world. People really think about how they use local suppliers and that’s driven by their own passion. There’s an authenticity in it. When you see bigger chains doing it, there’s a bit of scepticism because it’s more tactical. It doesn’t feel like it’s coming from the heart like it does when you go to a local business that’s really tried to invent something completely new.
What is one piece of advice you’d give to retailers who are taking on a CSR initiative?
It’s difficult to do a retrofit of ethics if your business wasn’t set up with an ethical purpose at its heart. Customers will be very sceptical about what you’re doing and why. I think the first thing you have to do is really assess why you’re creating a CSR initiative. If the main reason is to acquire more customers, scrap it. There’s got to be a greater purpose. People are very alert to greenwashing, and customers won’t trust retailers’ CSRs until they stop viewing places as post codes with an ROI attached and realise that when they invest in a retail outlet, they’ve got a genuine stake in a community.
How do you think large retailers can start to enact the ‘convenience with a conscience’ ethos that drives ShopAppy?
The first thing that every brand should do right now is start working towards local empowerment in their stores. Use your managers’ intelligence and knowledge of the community to make empowered decisions at a local level and engage with local community initiatives. Dunelm, for example, ran a campaign this year with a Christmas tree where you could put a label on it for somebody if they were in a care home, and customers could pick up a tag and buy something for that person. I think that’s a great idea to reinforce that community bond.
Secondly, you need to give opportunities for local small businesses around you to be part of what you do. Big retailers need to complement rather than compete with independents. And lastly, when you’re innovating on that local scale, you need to accept that you’re going to get it wrong. Local small businesses get it wrong, and it’s costly at times, but they learn fast, and that’s how many of them have made it through lockdown. Bigger businesses seem to be risk averse, but we’re in a period now where we need to be innovating and testing everything because at the moment our economies are tanking, we’ve got to find new ideas, and be prepared to fail.
Interested in reading more about sustainability? Discover more about the psychology behind creating a circular economy with Dr. Kerli Kant Hvass.