Developing a successful venture in today’s environment is no easy feat – but it’s not impossible. UK SMEs share their secrets
Any small business owner knows that in a period of economic uncertainty, sustaining growth and profitability is a tall order. Businesses must play to their strengths to innovate and diversify where possible, and identify new opportunities in new markets – all while continuing to add value for their existing customers. It’s a considerable juggling act.
One organisation with first-hand experience of adapting and innovating at the heart of communities across the UK is Post Office. Through the ongoing development of services that combine the in-branch and digital worlds and address today’s “want it now” culture, it’s meeting the growing and ever-changing expectations of its customers.
“It’s been a tough time for high street retailers,” says Tom Moran, Post Office retail development director. “As the UK’s largest retail network, we too have faced many challenges to ensure we remain relevant, commercially viable and here for what matters for our customers. In the retail sector, those doing well are those that provide convenience but, most importantly, they give people a reason to actually visit their shop by offering services and experiences that make them places customers want to go to. Understanding where to innovate, diversify or explore markets is key to helping prioritise.”
With online sales continuing to grow, Post Office has responded to the demands of digital customers by investing in new services, such as returns service Labels to Go. This saves customers time by allowing them to use their mobile device to print free returns labels at Post Office. Last year’s acquisition of Payzone’s bill payments business has also had a positive impact on customer convenience and customer numbers.
“These new services help to attract new customers while also offering something innovative for existing customers. This generates additional income that we can reinvest in further enhancing our customer offering and in supporting our postmasters in becoming leading retailers on their high street,” says Moran.
Post Office innovation is also helping postmasters to grow their own businesses. Jitesh Chavda gave up his job as a financial consultant to become a postmaster 25 years ago, and is currently at Boldmere Post Office and WH Smith Local in Sutton Coldfield, a town to the north-east of Birmingham.
“Since the banks started closing their high street branches, Post Office has become a destination for almost everything,” he says. “From financial transactions to travel money, insurance, our destination products and services have made us a first port of call for an expanding and increasingly diverse customer base.”
Increasingly, that includes owners of small businesses, who are also looking for opportunities to grow, diversify and target new markets. Emma Cruickshank runs a craft business, Stitch Me Happy, from her home in Gorleston-on-Sea in Norfolk. Initially selling homemade crafts, such as bags and aprons, locally via word-of-mouth, interest in her products quickly grew. When she expanded her range, and broadened her customer base through online sales, the support of her local Post Office branch became invaluable.
“A growing number of online customers wanted bespoke products,” she says. “For example, quilts made out of baby clothes and other baby gifts. I sent these out via Royal Mail and, as a result, got to know Post Office staff really well. Their service is so reliable, which is crucial to customer trust and confidence in my business.”
Cruickshank has diversified further to offer sewing workshops and online sewing tutorials to reach new audiences and uses social media to manage the growing online communities she now engages with.
Another small home-based business that has tapped into new markets is Fairy Dusk, which sells decorative lighting, home and garden accessories, and gifts. The Newark-on-Trent business was founded in 2016 by Hannah Dennis and her sister Emma Titera, after they’d spotted a gap in the market for year-round decorative home lighting. “I’ve always loved pretty lighting and always wanted to have my own business,” says Hannah.
They began selling their products from a local market stall before moving on to larger trade events. When they invested in an e-commerce site and progressed to online sales, their local Post Office on Whitfield Street, Newark, became their rock.
“They’re great at finding the most economical way of mailing packages, and the services are so convenient,” says Dennis. “My Post Office is also now my bank, so I do all my financial transactions there, which saves me so much time.”
The business recently tapped into a new revenue stream: hosting lighting shopping parties at people’s homes, which is driving growth and raising their brand profile.
However, in the high-speed digital age it is more important than ever for businesses to have a social purpose, as Chavda explains. “I run a business, but I’m also there to help my community,” he says. “I’m a committee member of our local high street traders’ association, and we do everything we can to support each other.”
Chavda has spoken at local women’s institute groups and charities such as Age UK to help welcome new audiences into his shop, and spends time talking to local SMEs to see how he can help them – whether it’s through fast and reliable mailing services, or the financial services that turn his Post Office into their local bank.
“We are seeing so many new faces now, and that’s thanks to our strong sense of social purpose,” says Chavda. “Post Office is going from strength to strength.”