Have you heard the one about how a bowl of spaghetti bolognese and a Londoner with a Doctorate in Psychology ended up kickstarting the renaissance of High Streets across the UK? Well, ShopAppy is no joke and we went to talk to its founder, Jackie Mulligan, about why independent retailers love it.
Jackie Mulligan is the sort of person who gets things done. So when she saw that independent retailers in the Yorkshire town of Saltaire were struggling she decided to do something about it. A Cockney by birth, Mulligan moved several years ago to the town which, like many others across the country, was seeing an increasing number of vacant shops as traders gave up the fight against online retailing and the power of the national brands.
She explains: “I realised how happy it made me feel to have these lovely independent shops so close by, and how enjoyable it was to shop locally where you could speak to shopkeepers about the products they had chosen to sell.
“It was also clear that in the local shops, residents talked to each other. Shopping local just makes us all feel more connected and happy.”
Mulligan had her lightbulb moment and ShopAppy was born. ShopAppy enables shoppers to browse online products from multiple shops in their local town. You can pay through one single check-out and then pick up your shopping in the evening from a single local collection point. Mulligan calls it ‘convenience with a local conscience’.
For local businesses, it provides a 24-hour online shop window, and is a subscription service which doesn’t take commission on sales. The concept was refined over Spaghetti Bolognese dinners with local shopkeepers at Mulligan’s home. Out of these conversations came the notion to give local shops the power of a superstore by having all their products in one place. Mulligan met independent shops who were worried about going online, mostly because they loved meeting people and seeing people in their shops.
“So the original idea was to offer the opportunity for click-and-collect which would bring customers into town,” she recalls.
One of her neighbours ran a digital agency called Marvellous, which worked with her and a group of shopkeepers to shape the ShopAppy website which went live for the towns of Saltaire and Otley in November 2016.
“We developed it first as a website rather than an app because we felt that a website is a common denominator - the basic level of digital technology that everybody is familiar with”.
One advantage of the site is that it enables shopkeepers to load new products onto their listings in about 30 seconds. And as ShopAppy will also be launching an app shortly there is also scope for the business to roll-out across the country.
Since its launch, growth has been rapid. ShopAppy is now in 12 towns across Yorkshire while Mulligan is working with local authorities in Lincolnshire, Norfolk and the Isle of Wight to bring their towns onto the platform. Meanwhile, ShopAppy towns are climbing the UK digital influence index with 91% of people saying it encourages them to shop local more while shops are reporting seeing new customers inspired to come into towns by the online shop window.
“We target local people; we don’t just promote the website all over the place. We promote it specifically in the areas where we’re operating. We see lots of users browsing it, but then actually going into the shops rather than ordering online. So ShopAppy is having quite a significant effect on footfall. Which is kind of similar across many commerce platforms which people use for browsing and research.
“So we are a really strong ‘shop local’ campaign but you can also order online and click-and-collect.”
To provide a click-and-collect service out of normal shopping hours, Mulligan is also partnering with other collection points such as local pubs: “So that helps the local F&B economy also. It’s snowing right now but there’s a nice warm fire at the Woolly Sheep Inn so you can order your shopping, nip in to the pub to collect it and have a quick pint or dinner.
One of the people to see the potential of the platform early on was Andrew Mear – a private landlord who owns 21 shops across the Yorkshire market town of Skipton. He offered to pay for all the retailers in his properties to have access to ShopAppy for one year.
“Something that can help my tenants’ businesses will also help them pay the rent,” he reasons in a typically forthright Yorkshire way. Perhaps surprisingly, while 13 of his occupiers took up the offer, the others didn’t. “I cannot for the life of me understand why they didn’t. If they’re going to survive, retailers have to help themselves and get engaged,” Mear observes.
Mulligan is conscious that landlords can play a vital part in the effectiveness of ShopAppy and benefit from having a more resilient occupier base.
“Andrew Mear is an excellent case study of a responsible local landlord who wants to help his occupiers flourish. However, a lot of owners of the type of shops that proliferate across small market towns do not live locally and are therefore not as engaged.
“Their focus is primarily on increasing the rent which is understandable but can lead to a horrendous churn in the shopping landscape which ultimately will hit the landlord’s interests. It’s getting slower and slower to relet shops. And that’s really detrimental to the local economy, the landlords, the retailers and the wellbeing of the local community.”
Mulligan did a psychology doctorate and her thesis looked at how our sense of place is really important to our mental health and wellbeing: “If you’re walking down a street which has ‘to let’ signs then what’s that telling you about where you live? What’s it telling you about your own aspirations, your own sense of community? So we really have to fight for these bricks and mortar retailers”.
ShopAppy is priced to be accessible. The full retailer membership is £5 a week while market stalls pay £3.
“We looked at the alternative to getting live online and there was nothing under about £350 a year. And we thought, well let’s do it at five quid a week and that price point is working.”
A grassroots initiative like this needs a great salesperson and Mulligan is certainly a passionate advocate for saving what’s best about local High Streets.
“You’ve got to mobilise and you’ve got to collaborate. When we launched, we only had four shops. I thought this is probably the worst idea I’ve ever had in my life. But we went to 20 within two weeks that was a sign that things were looking good. And now I look at the hundreds of shops we have and many more towns. So I’d say we’re at a tipping point now.
“But we’ve learnt a lot and we’re still learning. We’re helping digitise the High Street but, most importantly, we’re helping people rediscover what is great about it.”