The SOLE (Supporting our Local Economy) website is now live. Kirsty McIntosh from SOLE explains more about this project in this guest blog.
In March 2020 when the pandemic hit and lockdown was imposed, communities around Scotland swung into action to support those within them who were in need. Local businesses lost significant revenue both through the drop in retail footfall and the loss of hospitality and tourism business. Many of these businesses have done an extraordinary job to either create or enhance an online presence or take phone orders and have undertaken door to door deliveries in an effort to support both their businesses and their local communities. One way or another, people have been supported or provided help and local businesses have truly stepped up and made a difference. They deserve to be supported as we recover.
However, shopping locally online is something of a challenge. Firstly, you need to know where you want to shop, then you need to work out where their online presence is, eg Facebook or a website. If there is no online presence, you need to find a phone number and you need to know what you want to buy before you place your order. You need to provide your payment details to all these different businesses individually, factor in delivery costs or minimum order values and be prepared to accept delivery at the businesses’ convenience. It is, frankly, a bit of a faff and pretty time-consuming. Amazon, on the other hand, makes shopping online fast, interesting and easy.
The Scottish Tech Army is a not-for-profit organisation that was created in response to the pandemic. We mobilised some of the best tech talent in Scotland that had been either furloughed or made redundant and have undertaken several projects to support organisations, particularly in the third sector who needed help either getting online or improving their online presence. But in addition, we have received numerous requests through Scottish Government and via our website related to the problem area of how best to support the local economy. Some were focused on things like the difficulty and additional costs of distribution faced by retailers, others were from trade associations looking for ‘apps’ to help make things easier for their local areas. Another was from a consumer who simply asked ‘why can’t I shop online locally as easily as I can at Tesco or Amazon?’
Moving away from the essentials such as food and medicine, the problems facing local high streets are wide, varied and well documented. Coronavirus restrictions make shopping a less than fun experience. Shopper numbers are truncated, queues form outside, which is fine in the summer, not so in the winter. In an effort to push more people through stores, there’s little opportunity to browse before you buy, reducing impulse purchasing.
Local shopping online is possible – but it only works well if the people who are buying know where to look and much effort and money is spent by businesses on marketing, promotions, website monitoring and more. What’s more, visitors to the area do not have an easy way to look at what’s on offer locally.
SOLE (Supporting Our Local Economy) is a single digital point of discovery for an entire community. You can browse and shop there, book appointments, find a local service or group and see what’s going on. Local businesses have the chance to trade locally online when the virus, travel or convenience dictates that people can’t get to them physically. It can also be used to draw their citizens to the centre of town with special offers, events and services. Tourists can use the platform or the app before even arriving in an area, so they know what’s on offer today or tomorrow morning or can perhaps shop locally in anticipation of arriving at self-catering accommodation. The platform is the same no matter where you are in Scotland (just like Tesco or Amazon) but is branded to reflect the local area.
Our research led us to understand that each community’s site on a platform is best managed by the community itself. SOLE has been developed to ensure that local management of it is simple but effective. Each business and community group is responsible for its own presence on the platform, but a centralised ‘admin’ team is required to post news and events and ensure the legitimacy of new businesses coming onto the platform.
As with all pilots, the platform will evolve and benefit from the input and creativity of all of the communities who engage with it. What’s more, a successful pilot will demonstrate to the financial sponsor (East Lothian Council) that the investment is justified. If it helps businesses survive and thrive post pandemic and keeps money in the local economy it is worthy of continued investment.
The site and the mobile app went live on 19th April 2021. We would encourage as many of you to share the story of SOLE and engage with the platform to make it what you want and need.
Kirsty McIntosh, SOLE, April 2021