Michelle Ovens CBE on getting customers to shop local: “Small businesses are our secret weapon”

The Small Business Saturday founder believes shopping local is the key to SMEs’ success in these hard economic times

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As the UK continues in a state of permacrisis, businesses have been retreating into survival mode as they figure out the next moves in such a fragile economic atmosphere.

Local small businesses have been hit particularly hard. As things change in the economic landscape faster and more fervently than ever before, SMEs are constantly looking for new ways to keep up, adapt and do their best to be as creative and relatable as possible with marketing in order to keep customers loyal and engaged.

So, what can you do to ensure that customers are spending with you this year, whether that is in person or online?

Michelle Ovens CBE is here to share her top tips, based on her experience running Small Business Saturday, and observations on hundreds of small businesses.

1. Be agile (and build on the resilience and flexibility learned from the pandemic)

Michelle is no stranger to recessions and business turmoil for business owners.

Speaking of when and why she led efforts to launch Small Business Saturday in the UK 10 years ago, she recounts:

“At the time we had just come out of a big recession – which had triggered the US campaign to start – and we needed the grassroots small businesses starting up to create the engine of recovery. And it worked – we saw a huge growth in the number of small businesses starting up, and the general public’s appreciation of and support for them grew accordingly. Once more, we find ourselves at the edge of a recession, and it again demonstrates the importance of Small Business Saturday to support that small business-led recovery.”

Most small businesses can become more resilient than they realise. In fact, Ovens considers them the “secret weapon” of the UK economy – particularly if they can learn to cultivate a positive, optimistic mindset in the face of new challenges.

“Small Business Saturday plays a critical role in refocusing on opportunity, on support, on growth; it helps to support the business mindset that will form the basis for all recovery in 2023.”

2. Seek (free) support from bigger businesses

Small businesses need as much support as possible, and the private sector can play a huge role in the growth and journey of entrepreneurs, whether that is through sharing skills and expertise, tools, insight, or funding.

Small Business Saturday’s principal supporter in the UK is American Express, and it originally founded the campaign in the US. The brand has been championing the UK high street and encouraging consumers to shop local. American Express also has its own “Shop Small” campaign.

BT Skills for Tomorrow also plays a big role boosting small firms across the country with advice and mentoring, as an official supporter of Small Business Saturday’s UK Tour.

“The government needs to put entrepreneurship first across all areas of policy,” Ovens emphasises. “We also need to see a lot of the obstacles for small businesses removed, such as the crippling challenges of exporting to the EU.”

3. Seek support from campaigns such as Small Business Saturday

Over the past decade, Small Business Saturday has grown throughout the UK as somewhat of a grassroots movement, working tirelessly towards championing small businesses all over the country.

“Small businesses really need support from all angles, so this year’s Small Business Saturday is more vital than ever,” insists Ovens.

“Small Business Saturday essentially beams a huge, free marketing spotlight on the nation’s 5.5 million small businesses, with an impact that lasts all year. Over the time it has been running in the UK, the campaign has engaged millions of people about the value of small businesses, and seen billions of pounds spent on small businesses.”

They have been running a roadshow called ‘The Tour’ every year throughout November, which travels to over 20 locations across the country to interview and showcase and celebrate small businesses, as well as delivering free business mentoring and workshops online on each day of the tour.

Here are Oven’s key ways that Small Business Saturday can help small firms and retailers to drive local custom (both online and offline!):

4. Build on digital skills / online presence

Digital marketing is one of the most important levers at your disposal. It connects you to most people around the globe, at any time – and it’s super easy to get started. So even when your physical business is closed you could still be garnering brand awareness, and sales while you sleep.

It’s important not to focus solely on footfall. All available channels and routes to market need to be maximised too, whether it is via a website or an online marketplace.” Ovens advises. The rise of ecommerce is a trend that has not let up since it was first introduced, there is no signs of it slowing down any time soon – it is undoubtedly and indisputably the future for everything – and post-pandemic, it has only been proven even more essential.

Digital tools have helped to sustain many businesses, offering new markets, new ways of engaging customers and fantastic ways to save time and money. Small businesses are increasingly tapping into the benefits of online and this can only be a good thing.

Small retailers need to make sure they invest in their digital skills (a lot of support out there is free!) and go out there and make the most of the world of opportunities that digital has to offer. There are also loads of ways to shop with small businesses online, including on platforms like eBay which are full of small sellers.”


Small businesses are understandably nervous, but should also feel reassured of their power right now. As Ovens said: “Small businesses have always been at the heart of powering innovation, and economic growth”.

Even in these times, there is the potential to do great things for your customers. Encouraging them to shop local and investing in the right skills and opportunities at your disposal to do so would be good for them, great for you, and excellent for the economy as a whole – they’re simply waiting for your support to make it happen.

Written by:
Stephanie Lennox is the resident funding & finance expert at Startups: A successful startup founder in her own right, 2x bestselling author and business strategist, she covers everything from business grants and loans to venture capital and angel investing. With over 14 years of hands-on experience in the startup industry, Stephanie is passionate about how business owners can not only survive but thrive in the face of turbulent financial times and economic crises. With a background in media, publishing, finance and sales psychology, and an education at Oxford University, Stephanie has been featured on all things 'entrepreneur' in such prominent media outlets as The Bookseller, The Guardian, TimeOut, The Southbank Centre and ITV News, as well as several other national publications.

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