Director Principle Point
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Dorset high street
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Retail recovery: Return of the high street

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For businesses classed as ‘non essential’, reopening couldn’t come soon enough. For accountants and tech companies, the narrative has been about supporting these small businesses to emerge on the other side. Richard Sergeant takes to a real high street to find out if the accountech promise has really had the impact.

28th Apr 2021
Director Principle Point
Columnist
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Working while you’re on holiday is going to go down like a lead balloon with the family, but in the interests of ‘research’, one just can’t help oneself.

In beautiful Dorset – the very first week of reopening – the good business folk of Bridoprt were not only happy to give me the opportunity to spend, they also gave insight freely on the role their accountants and tech have played. 

Food for thought

A rather good butcher has fared well. Lockdown slightly increased footfall and the value of each sale, and with prices staying fairly stable gave good margins. That’s not bad intel from a quick conversation to buy bacon and chicken. 

Interestingly, it was their accountant that made the difference. Encouraging them to do more online, they expanded into local deliveries using their own van. Handing over their bookkeeping also meant they had the data and insight they needed to advise on changing what they were ordering in, and to shift more of their online sales from ad hoc orders to weekly meat and dairy boxes.

In the drink

On to the pub, and what was my first pint in an age.The service was good, food OK, and beer marvellous – but expensive. Restricting the number of covers, and the overheads needed to get going had an impact on the prices for sure. 

Moving to iPads for the waiting staff apparently was not a new initiative, nor was it particularly easy to use or even (as we discovered) reliable. However, it was day two of restrictions ending so I think we can give everyone a break.

More interesting still, is that despite not being an independent pub, many of the decisions were devolved. The result being decisions such as staffing levels, food and drink ordering, and pricing were made by the team there without the aid of a finance professional. 

It didn’t take a genius to work out that the decision-making was focused on getting things up and running rather than anything else. With little or no data to work with, the manager conceded they were relying on educated guesses. 

Comparing this to our local in Bristol who had adapted to become a local shop, was stark. Not least as they also used the funds and time to work with their accountant to change the internal sales and stock and restaurant software, and prepare plans and budgets for 2021.

Left hanging

Not having the available insight to help make decisions was one thing, but a local independent clothes shop seemed to lose out on the support it needed. 

While paying, the manager talked about their inability to make the transition to online sales and effectively closing up for most of the lockdown period. Asking about the support they received from their accountant, and the answer was “They don’t do that kind of thing”. 

Furlough? BBLS? Stock planning? Margin analysis? Nothing. Voicing some surprise I pushed harder, and it became clearer: they didn’t ask, so they didn’t get. 

What their accountant should have done is by-the-by – and I don’t have both sides of course. However, it reminded me that there are many businesses who still see their accountants as just there to tidy up the year-end and sort tax. 

Also, it’s not easy to adapt to a digital world, and the tech required, if you’re under pressure and lack the skills or confidence to embrace. Which made me think that the concerns many will have over MTD  mandated quarterly updates for income tax is one thing, but the corporation tax side could prove even more problematic for some

It also underlines the need for both proactive accountants and sympathetic technology firms.

Collaboration wins

It went on. Interior design shops that had expanded virtually and were now launching a new online brand. A cookshop had taken the opportunity to review their supply chain costs, negotiate contracts and terms on wholesale, and reviewed their shop lease giving them an optimistic view on 2021. Both were achieved by working with their accountant and having more of the data to hand. 

The story was clear – given the opportunity to have the right tech in place supported by their accountant – those that could survive have also thrived.

The visible part of the service is not technology

Did the technology matter? It did in terms of what it delivered, but not the specific brands.

From these brief examples, I would suggest that most could have a stab at naming the epos system they were using, but that was about it. The ledger seemed broadly invisible, and those that were getting insights from their accountants weren’t using reporting apps directly but seemed to be getting the information passed to them. And I think that’s OK. Do they need to know their Fluidly from their elbow? Of course not, and it was clear that it was the role the accountant played, not as a business adviser, but as a business friend that was so valued. 

The local firms, serving the local community have a lot to be proud of (on the whole). Their willingness to get the tech in, to support and to give the key bits of information that made the biggest impact has turned a tough time in the high street, into an opportunity for those willing and able to make it

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