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Small store survival and the business costs scourge
Independent retailers face a constant struggle to reduce their overheads
Running an independent store isn't quite as nonchalant a task as Dylan Moran makes it seem in the sitcom Black Books. Not everyone has Bill Bailey to take care of business, and three-hour closures for wine-fuelled lunches aren't some sort of secret to high street success.
Appearances can be deceptive. If there's someone behind the counter, customers handing over money and a healthy-looking display in the window, we could be forgiven for assuming that things must be ticking along nicely.
But it's often what goes on behind the scenes that really determines whether a store succeeds or fails. The books have to be balanced, the admin properly processed and contingency plans drawn up in case things don't turn out as expected.
Counting the costs
It's this constant battle to manage costs that can leave small retailers facing problems. Shops have to win this fight in order to survive, and expenditure has to be kept to a minimum if they're going to do so.
Every small business owner recognises the benefits of cutting costs, but understanding how best to do it is another matter
Unfortunately this is a mountain that's becoming increasingly difficult to climb. Research conducted by the Forum of Private Business found that 94% of businesses have experienced an increase in their costs over the past year, and 87% have seen their energy bills jump.
With the figures also showing that the vast majority have witnessed rises in expenditure on transport and raw materials, the challenges are becoming ever tougher.
So what's the answer?
Finding the solution is often easier said than done. Every small business owner recognises the benefits of cutting costs, but understanding how best to do it is another matter.
We believe looking at your overheads is a great place to start. Lots of businesses are paying much more than they need to for essential services such as energy, telecoms and broadband - and could easily switch to a better deal that makes a profound difference to their bottom lines.
But even if overheads are the bane of a business person's life, the prospect of incurring a new one should not necessarily be something to fear. It's well documented that retailers have to pay expensive fees for card payments, but research published by PayPal earlier this week revealed that they're missing out on £800 million a year simply because they don't accept credit and debit cards.
These charges might be a bitter pill to swallow - but surely they're more palatable than effectively turning down sales and sending customers to competitors?
One thing retailers should know is that they're not obliged to go with the merchant services provider recommended by their bank - and there is actually a competitive supply market in which cheaper rates can be acquired by savvy shoppers. Our customers, for example, typically save 25% on their transaction fees when we set them up on a new contract - and that's a difference that significantly improves their sales margins.
With many small stores set to have their survival prospects for the next year determined in the build up to Christmas, the coming weeks could prove to be make or break for independent retailers.
That's why it's essential for businesses to have a handle on their costs - as well as maximising their potential to make money. Expensive overheads and missed opportunities could well prove to be the difference between boom and doom in 2014.