The last few months have demonstrated the challenges faced in striking a balance between supporting our local economies and doing so in a way that keeps us safe. Everyone has had to adjust their normal ways of living, working and socialising, whether that be turning our front rooms into offices, ensuring business premises are Covid-secure or taking great care when we interact with one another in everyday life.
With more people working from home and fewer people commuting into city centres, small businesses in our local high streets are more important than ever. Whether that’s your hairdresser, grocer, restaurant or corner shop, our small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) are playing their part in keeping our communities going. The strength of small businesses up and down the country will be vital as we try to bounce back from coronavirus and rebuild our economy. Government schemes such as the Small Business Leadership Programme will help equip small business with the leadership, resilience and problem-solving skills that they will need to grow after the pandemic.
As well as government support, consumers can help by shopping local and supporting jobs close to home. But big businesses have a role to play too, particularly when they have digital tools that can help small businesses navigate the challenges presented by the coronavirus.
Today marks the launch of a landmark partnership between big and small business, as the private messaging app WhatsApp is partnering with Watford borough council to create the UK’s first “WhatsApp High Street”. Experts from WhatsApp are providing a group of small businesses in Watford with free training and advice on the WhatsApp Business app, which helps businesses showcase their products and services, take orders and easily communicate with their customers, and which already has more than 50 million users worldwide.
Just as we have all been using services like WhatsApp more than ever to stay close to those most important to us during the pandemic, increasingly, so too are businesses all over the world.
The partnership could not have come at a better time. Research commissioned by WhatsApp and conducted by YouGov has found that almost two thirds (65 per cent) of SMBs in the UK have had a drop in footfall due to coronavirus, with public concerns over social distancing in small premises thought to be the main reason for customers staying at home. While larger SMBs are more capable of increasing their use of digital tools and platforms, less than half of those surveyed with under ten staff said that they had been able to do so. Speaking to small businesses, we know that keeping up that communication with customers is really important, so providing the necessary tools to help them is vital.
The UK is a hub for entrepreneurship and innovation, and our small businesses are an inspiration to economies around the world. This pandemic has taught us that communicating with one another is so important — whether that’s video calling with your family, messaging a neighbourhood group to see who needs shopping, or calling someone who may be isolated and alone, we all know that communicating can really make a difference. Looking out for our small businesses is also key.
In the months ahead, we hope that this partnership in Watford — an example of global technology businesses and the Great British High Street — can be an inspiration to small businesses up and down the country.
Dean Russell is the MP for Watford; Matt Idema is chief operating officer for WhatsApp