The retail market in the UK has long been volatile, with e-commerce driving consumers away from the high street. When coronavirus hit, the demise of the high street accelerated, we’ve seen former big players like Topshop and Debenhams fail to survive. 

Despite this many independent retailers have quietly become the underdogs, ticking over and keeping their sector of the economy thriving. Much of this is down to Digital Marketing and the power of social media.

As brands were forced to close their doors, online trading became the only way to operate. Small retailers’ USPs are centred around the experiential aspect of shopping in store, aiming to provide quality customer service, unique stores and quality products. Without face-to-face contact the question was how could this experience be transferred online?

This is where social media marketing came in to play, particularly Instagram. Stuck at home, consumers screen time skyrocketed. A survey by Bazaarvoice found that 67% of consumers had expanded their use of Instagram.

People were spending more time than ever on social apps, creating the perfect opportunity for brands to slide in and catch the attention of new consumers whilst also keeping existing customers engaged and updated. 

Pre pandemic campaigns run by American Express (Shop Small) and The British Independent Retailers Association (Shop Local) legitimised the hashtag trend on social media, this existing trend became more popular with consumers in lockdown. Consumers share their favourite shops and purchases using the hashtags #shopsmall and #shoplocal, this supports brands and opens them up to new potential customers who have similar interests to the people they follow that use the hashtags.  The Federation of Small Businesses also ran their #SupportSmallBusinesses Campaign in 2020  adding to the growing audience of consumers sharing and engaging with small businesses.


FSB Supporting SMall Businesses Campaign

Below are three Scottish independents that have made the best out of difficult circumstances and grown successfully over the last year.

ALC - Edinburgh

A female lead womenswear boutique, specialising in denim. During lockdown ALC used Instagram to keep consumers engaged and orders coming in. Making use of IGTV and Reels features ALC began sharing styling videos and introducing new pieces. Through video content ALC made consumers feel like they in conversation with the brand even from home.

Food Story Aberdeen

Food Story - Aberdeen

A café/ wholefoods shop known for supporting local produce and simple homemade good food. During lockdown Food Story opened an online store selling essentials, from fruit, veg and bread to natural soaps and household products. They have been active on their Instagram sharing daily content of new products,  and updating their followers on their daily activities. Engaging followers by promoting wellness and giving support to those struggling in lockdown.

IOLLA Eyewear Glasgow

IOLLA - Glasgow

Offering affordable and stylish prescription eyewear, the brand has always been active on Instagram, throughout the last year they have continued to be successful by engaging with their consumers, encouraging customers to share selfies of their glasses with hashtag #SeeWithIOLLA. User generated content is a great way to boost social engagement. They also offer a virtual try on service which has been a hit with consumers unable to visit their stores.

So how are these brands surviving? Here are 3 key factors that have helped local businesses build sucess throughout throughout the pandemic.

1. Community

One of the most valuable aspects of social media for small brands is the ability to transfer your community online, apps like Instagram allow brands to interact with consumers the same way they interact with friends, as well as this consumer who like a brand can interact with each other.

Building brand community builds a level of trust between consumer and brand, in turn creating brand loyalty. Brand loyalty has been extremely important during the pandemic for small businesses. Building repeat customers is what keeps many businesses going.

 2. Consumer Behaviour Changes

Consumer habits have steadily been shifting online for some time but alongside this there has been a massive shift towards shopping small/local. As more information concerning sustainability has reached mainstream media consumers are becoming more conscious. The rise in the trend of sustainability has benefited many small business retailers as consumers look to avoid corporate giants like amazon and buy from local stores who promote sustainability themselves both in terms of people and the environment.

The pandemic accelerated the shop local movement as consumers moved to support businesses that were less likely to survive or receive government funding. Social media had a large role to play in this also as both brands and consumers used hashtags ‘shoplocal’ ‘shopsmall’ etc to generate conversations on the topic, these hashtags reached top trending positions and helped boost sales and exposure for many businesses during lockdown.

 3. Adaptability

 An important part of business survival is adaptability, businesses who have managed to survive the through lockdowns made quick innovative decisions early on. Moving business models to include e-commerce, local delivery to mention a few.

With the ever-changing regulations in the UK organisational adaptability has been key. Social Media has aided with changes to business operation as businesses can easily inform their consumers of new brand activity.


Empty Aberdeen - Union Street

In the saturated retail market it is clear social media marketing is the way forward for small businesses. It’s a relatively low cost way to keep in contact with consumers and keep them excited about your brand. The techniques used to survive tough trading times during the pandemic can be used even after lockdown restriction ease, implementing engaging social media content into your marketing strategy can reap massive rewards.