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How small businesses are dealing with online giants

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Family shop owners: Jonathan McCann with his sister Sarah and mother Heather

Small businesses in the UK face a number of immediate challenges, including a long slowdown in consumer spending.

But they also face a struggle with big online competitors such as Amazon.

On Small Business Saturday, we take a look at what some businesses are doing to up their e-commerce game.

“I do think there’s a great opportunity for small business,” says Northern Irish shop owner Jonathan McCann. “We are punching above our weight.”

He started his business, Jonzara, in 2008 with sister Sarah and mum Heather in Newtownards. They sell women’s clothing, and cater for the “older lady”, he says.

The family has worked hard to build up the business, but Mr McCann says that competition from online retailers is “a major concern”.

“People obviously want the cheapest price, and Amazon works on price,” he says. “It’s a concern for everybody.”

Earlier this year there was US press speculation that the giant could face anti-competition scrutiny under the Trump administration.

Amazon is trying to disrupt various markets, including fashion, but the world’s biggest e-commerce site doesn’t tick all of the boxes, says Mr McCann.

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Jonzara is now expanding its online offering

One of the main differences is their personalised customer service, he says.

His “small team of girls” on the shop floor makes big efforts to get to know their customers, and to offer them clothing that harmonises. “We’re offering a personal service. Amazon can’t do that.”

The online giant is “not as attractive” for his demographic, he adds. It has dresses aimed at 16-year-olds alongside other merchandise and “they don’t sit together”.

Jack be nimble

Mr McCann says that a quick turnaround of stock means they have clothing lines in small numbers ahead of many competitors, keeping the shop looking “fresh”.

Jonzara also runs customer events such as fashion nights and is building its own e-commerce business. “Online has really grown for us”, he says.

Its online success led to it opening a store in Lisburn, in part so it could manage stock more effectively.

Most of its online customers are from outside Northern Ireland – mainly English, but also from Germany and the Netherlands.

“We’re looking at how we can grow that quite aggressively,” he says.

Jonzara is part of the campaign group Small Business Saturday.

Community feel

Helen Harris, who co-owns York shop Owl and Monkey with her husband Matt, says when it comes to Amazon: “You’ve got to offer something different – you can’t compete on price”.

Their shop sells products that they think are practical but beautiful.

For example, they sell a type of twine that has been made in the UK since the 1800s. They say it’s important for their customers that they know that some of the products are made by “a brilliant man called Ted” in Cumbria.

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Abhimanyu Bose

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Small shops can still ‘tap into necessities people need’ says shop owner Helen Harris

“Anything day-to-day that makes the day feel that much more special.”

They live on the same street as their shop, and says they try to give back to the community – hosting events for local artists.

“It’s an important space for other people in the community to come and display [art and products]”, she says.

They started online in 2009, but wanted “a storybook shop” – something that “feels like a lovely continental shop where everything is beautifully presented to you”.

“Online you are a very small voice in a very large pond, and it’s difficult to get heard.”

The shop uses social media to connect with customers, “first and foremost it’s service” says Mrs Harris.

The north east of England has the lowest concentration of small businesses in the UK, and some of the highest unemployment rates.

Mrs Harris thinks that independent shops have a big part to play in regenerating an area.

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