This Small Business Saturday it is right that we take the time to thank these businesses for all they have done, and continue to do, to get us through the pandemic and beyond.
If we look back, way back, to when Small Business Saturday started, it was in response to the financial crisis of 2008 to 2009.
While the campaign launched initially in the US, there was a real sense that the recovery, the return to growth and prosperity, would be driven by small businesses.
As the creators, the innovators, and the job makers, the six million small businesses across the UK would stimulate an exciting period of opportunity. And they did.
We could never have predicted the perfect storm of the last two years, for the economy and the whole nation.
Coming out of a crisis of unprecedented proportions, in our lifetimes at least, once more a solution of epic scale is going to be required. Once more, small businesses are going to be the engine room of prosperity and growth.
We cannot look at the world today and say ‘the crisis is over, time to get back to business’. Many challenges still remain for economies and communities.
Supply chains are more complicated and expensive, due to both the pandemic and Brexit.
Finance costs are up, thanks to (much needed) emergency lending at the height of the pandemic. Staffing shortages are causing businesses to close that are desperate to open their doors and welcome paying customers back in.
And, of course, there remain real and serious health concerns with high Covid rates taking out a lot of workers, and the spectre of the new Omicron variant on the horizon.
Once more, as we look forward with concern and uncertainty, it is to small businesses we turn. Local businesses are delivering to homes, adding on extra services to those isolating and vulnerable. Small businesses are working out ways to make Christmas magical once more with events, enthusiasm, and a dogged determinism to remain optimistic.
Indeed 70 per cent of small businesses feel more confident now about the future, versus 52 per cent in May, according to our research with American Express, Small Business Saturday’s founder and principal supporter in the UK.
Yorkshire’s small businesses are front and centre. Business like The Blind Badger Cocktail Company, in Maltby, which helped connect people forced apart in lockdown. Or Trust Electric Heating, in Garforth, which launched a new product to help vulnerable people control their heating costs in this same period.
It will be businesses like this that build the economy and communities of the future. And they will likely look a bit different than before. Businesses are leaner, more digital savvy and innovative. They are greener and more sustainable. These are all things that are good news and we should take a moment to celebrate them too.
Leaner businesses have emerged from the pandemic, having streamlined to survive. Whilst this has undoubtedly been painful for many, it has also led to what economists’ term more “productive” businesses. Businesses are doing more with less. Ultimately this will make them more resilient to future shocks, and well positioned to make the most of new opportunities when they do come along.
Digital skills have, out of absolute necessity, boomed throughout the last two years. A small business sector that was somewhat behind its global peers on digital engagement has taken huge leaps forward to respond to customer need and a changing environment. But this also sets them up well for future growth.
It enables trading outside the local area. For many it has enabled exporting for the first time. It allows small businesses to project a much bigger footprint than they may have, competing on a level with big businesses, and accessing much more opportunity and scale.
This is an exciting time and it is reflected in the boom in entrepreneurship since the pandemic began. A record number of businesses have been set up, creating opportunity like a phoenix rising from the lockdown ashes.
Innovation has absolutely been required to find ways round seemingly insurmountable obstacles – customers not coming, doors closed, nothing moving. And it has absolutely been applied to the critical issue of reducing carbon emissions and achieving net zero.
Nearly all small businesses – 99 per cent according to data from BT – consider sustainability important, with over a third becoming more sustainable since the pandemic. Collectively that is a huge amount of action. Although COP26 showed us the need for nation states to commit to radical changes, it also showed us that we will not reach net zero, and achieve what the planet requires, without small businesses playing a role.
New research from the British Business Bank found small businesses are responsible for a third of all emissions. We must recognise this phenomenal sector is taking its impact seriously and making considerable moves to address this critical issue.
So, this Small Business Saturday, there could not be a more important time to thank and support Yorkshire’s small businesses. They have been there for us, they continue to be there for us and they are stepping up to create the world of the future. Despite what the winter brings, I feel optimistic about what small businesses can do. Let’s make sure we are behind them all the way.
* Michelle Ovens CBE is director of Small Business Saturday UK.
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