Will neo-craft retailing save the high street?

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The word 'craft' in neon sign lighting

By Dr Alessandro Gerosa
Department of Marketing

I argue that this trend envisions an emerging retail paradigm of neo-craft retailing – beyond the ones of e-commerce and mass distribution – particularly suited for small and independent shops

The health of brick-and-mortar retailing is in more precarious conditions than ever. The vocabulary is very eloquent. Discussions about ‘the death of the high street’ are so recurrent it’s becoming a trope: searching the exact phrase on Google gives around 735,000 results.

The decline of small shops was caused by supermarkets and shopping centres, but fate hasn’t spared them either, endangered by the ‘retail apocalypse’. The global pandemic only further hastened these processes, which began with the rise of e-commerce at the turn of the millennium. Digital platforms opened some opportunities for small retailers (becoming a seller for Amazon, eBay, Etsy or food delivery apps), but the threats exceed the opportunities.

Still, the new evolving taste of consumers opens a different profitable path for brick-and-mortar small retailers. To take it, they must turn ‘back to the future’, combining in themselves the figure of the retailer with the one of the artisan. In a chapter recently published in an edited book dedicated to Artisan branding, I argue that this trend envisions an emerging retail paradigm of neo-craft retailing – beyond the ones of e-commerce and mass distribution – particularly suited for small and independent shops.

Looking back up to the history of retailing in the nineteenth century, it becomes apparent that this new paradigm means partially a return to the origins, where the figure of the artisan and the shopkeeper had blurred boundaries. Before industrialisation took the shape of mass standardised production, artisan shops co-existed and integrated with industrial production. Craft retailers were both economic intermediaries and proud skilled cultural workers. They acted as taste dealers with consumers, interpreting and translating the general consumption trends for the customers they faced during everyday interactions.

Neo-craft retailers recover this dual cultural and economic role of taste dealers, displaying mastery and passion toward the products they serve. They are distinct from their nineteenth-century forefathers because they form the backbone of the new urban hipster economy, selling typical food, refined cocktails and craft beers. Neo-craft retailing, from this point of view, seems one of the primary consequences of the surge of authenticity as a fundamental value orienting the taste of contemporary middle-class consumers, at least in Western societies. Neo-artisans frame the products they sell and the atmosphere of the place as authentic and distinctive from every other competitor, positioning themselves in open opposition to industrial and standardised production. The credible display of authenticity becomes a marker of success in the market.

Naturally, neo-craft retailing displays challenges for the artisans as well. The business concept – and branding accompanying it – must balance distinctiveness, adhesion to the aesthetic and symbolic canons of authenticity, and economic sustainability. Another fundamental challenge is the price setting of the goods. The middle-class clientele of neo-craft products desires handcrafted products, made with high-quality raw materials but at an affordable price. They also need to carefully adapt their identity and strategies based on their neighbourhood and be as involved in the local social life as possible. Otherwise, they will undermine their authenticity. Furthermore, albeit basing themselves on a nostalgic pre-industrial craft imaginary, skilful use of social media becomes fundamental.

Overall, employing the new paradigm of neo-craft retailing requires high levels of skill and sophistication, arguably favouring (white) middle-class retailers and further penalising large amounts of migrant and working-class shops. Nevertheless, it is emerging as one (and only?) strong model that could save the high street brick-and-mortar shops from their impending, perennially dreaded death.

For more detail on neo-craft retailing, access the chapter online or get in touch.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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