Mary Portas thinks we are in a ‘plastic hour’; a point in history when circumstance, public opinion and political will align to create a time to act. When civic stagnation is ousted by forward motion.
These moments are often forged in crisis, according to Gershom Scholem the 20th century German philosopher who coined the term.
And the pandemic has created one of these moments for our high streets, the retail expert and TV host tells This is Money.
It has given Britain a unique opportunity to rethink local communities and how we can best be served by them.
Mary Portas, retail expert, has teamed up with Mastercard to offer SMEs access to guidance and coaching on incorporating technology into their businesses
She believes our post-Covid way of life gives us a chance to revitalise ailing high streets and with it the small businesses that make up more than a third of private sector turnover in the UK.
Her vision for a new British high street draws inspiration from the concept of the 15 minute city – the idea you should be able to walk or cycle anywhere you need in 15 minutes – what she refers to as a ‘future-proofed way of living’.
And with it the decline of retail in favour of mixed-use town centres.
‘We will be looking at how we blend working, living, supplying caring, learning, enjoying, and this will mean minimum travel between houses, offices, restaurants, parks, hospitals, and cultural venues. That’s what will make up our high streets,’ she explains.
This new arrangement, she argues, needs to be underpinned by ‘green transport’.
Portas says that Britain will not meet the climate commitments we made at COP26 last autumn towards net zero without rethinking our high streets and how we travel.
‘I think this needs real investment from local council as well as central government. A lot of countries are taking this pretty seriously, we haven’t quite put it on the agenda with our government,’ she says.
‘We will have a more creative, a better high street than we’ve ever had. I think the last years have been boring, and the same back in the 90s the ‘clone towns’ with out of town retail.’
There is evidence to back up her vision. Kelly Devine, president for UK & Ireland, Mastercard, says that working from home has driven an uptick in consumers spending locally, out of a desire to support local businesses.
Three in five workers now say they prefer a hybrid working pattern between home and the office or another place or work.
Kelly Devine, President for UK & Ireland, Mastercard, says working from home has driven consumers to spend locally
‘What we can see in our data is that that trend has been quite sticky, people aren’t just reverting back to Amazon or a big weekly shop.
‘So that I think is a really positive trend for local retail businesses.’
Both Portas and Devine are keen to emphasise the central role the see technology playing in the evolution and the reality that for many small and medium sized enterprises adoption may be the key to their survival in continually turbulent times.
In the first three months of 2022 nearly 140,000 businesses shut their doors, up 23 per cent from the first quarter of 2021, according to the Office for National Statistics.
The majority of those that closed were small businesses with just two employees, 21 per cent smaller on average than those that closed prior to the pandemic.
Portas is working with Mastercard on its Strive initiative which aims to support this SMEs with free guidance and helpful tools, around the use of technology to grow their businesses.
The scheme, she says, actions many of things she has long been calling for to help the small business community such as one-on-one mentoring from similar and more established outfits.
‘It’s a lonely world out there when you’re a small business,’ she continues. ‘And these businesses are the lifeblood of our economy.
‘I just don’t think we can forget our heartland. So this this stuff is vital – how do we continue to help those businesses not only just grow, but to strive and thrive in the future?’
A report conducted by Mastercard found that 32 per cent of micro and small business owners want to use more digital tools, but don’t know which ones are best for their business.
The figure rises to 49.3 per cent in the case of respondents from an ethnic minority background, with 38.9 per cent of all respondents agreeing they feel overwhelmed by the amount of choice when it comes to digital tools.
Despite government-backed schemes such as recovery loans, the number of SME businesses that closed in the first three months of the year has risen from the same period last year
‘I still talk with a lot of small businesses and we need to look at their longer term growth,’ she says.
‘I often find myself asking, okay what are the priorities here? And the connectivity, the digital part is deeply important. I think it’s really very difficult for a business not to have that.’
Businesses ‘forged in the fire of the pandemic’ Devine adds, have greater flexibility due to necessity and their owners are more confident about the future on average than their more established peers.
‘They were able to pivot their businesses when they embrace digital, because they knew that that was the way forward.’
However, while technology offers opportunity the reality is that these innovations often come with significant start-up costs and in the current economic climate, businesses may simply not have the capital to spare.
Over a fifth of small businesses that needed additional finance over the past two years were unable to access any
According to the most recent figures from the ONS, more than three quarters of business owners report they have some form of concern for their business over the coming months, with the inflation of goods and services prices and energy prices named as the top two worries.
And while SMEs are no longer hampered by Covid-19 restrictions government-backed support initiatives, such as the Recovery Loan Scheme, are coming to an end amidst an uncertain economic climate which not only impact businesses themselves but the purchasing power of their customers.
According to a study commissioned by Manx Financial Group, 22 per cent of SMEs that needed external finance over the last two years were unable to access it.
And 27 per cent say that a lack in capital has forced them pause an area of their business, or stop it all together.
‘With the cost of living crisis it’s a look and feel of the 70s,’ says Douglas Grant, Manx chief executive.
‘It’s more likely to be a three year issue. If we don’t support the SMEs through this troubled period there won’t be an SME market for us to invest in.
‘Lockdown one was probably a drain on their reserves, then you have lockdown two and now the cost of living crisis. They don’t have the money.
‘So they need some form of liquidity, even if it’s working capital to keep the business running. Cash is king. I think there’re a lot of businesses that are ill prepared for what’s coming their way.’
Despite these pressures, Portas argues that investing in technology is still the best use of money for SMEs looking to the long term. ‘To compete today, it’s really the best use of any finance that you do have,’ she says.
For those looking for financing, Grant suggests sticking to the basics.
His advice for these reduce your overheads where possible, such as staff numbers or use of consultants and aggregate your debts.
Opt for a fixed rate longer term loan in order to reduce some of the volatility over the coming months.
Want to grow your small business but not sure how to fund it? We explain how to get a bank loan – and when an overdraft or Government loan is better