Digital technology is unlocking a retail renaissance in the UK’s rural economy

In the face of the well-documented ongoing evolution in the retail sector, let me draw your attention to a largely untold success story – the flourishing rural retail economy.

Today, with just a laptop, an internet connection and – crucially – a great product or service, your retail business can be both rural-based and globally-minded. Last year on Amazon alone, around 80 rural retail entrepreneurs turned over more than £1 million from headquarters in the UK countryside, and a further 150 people generated sales of more than £500,000.

Rural businesses already contribute a staggering £299 billion in Gross Value Added to the whole UK economy, according to Rural England and Scotland’s Rural College, and there are over 750,000 rural businesses the UK, accounting for a quarter of all registered businesses in the country – the vast majority of which are small and medium-sized.

Our own research tracking small business confidence found that rural SMEs are typically more confident than urban SMEs about conditions for their own businesses – and moreover, those who use eCommerce and export as part of their business operations tend to forecast higher future revenue and jobs growth than those who do neither.

Furthermore, research we commissioned with Rural England and Scotland’s Rural College explored how to unlock Britain’s digital potential. Rural businesses are already very digitally minded and estimated that greater digital adoption in rural areas could add up to £26 billion a year to the UK economy, plus growth in annual business turnover in rural areas of at least £15 billion.

The benefits of this digitally-enabled rural retail renaissance are clear to me. I witness first-hand many small rural businesses using our services to innovate, export and boost their productivity. Indeed, more than 10,000 independent businesses sell on Amazon from rural UK locations. And more broadly, eight-in-ten UK businesses that sell on Amazon export internationally leading to a total of more than £2 billion export sales on Amazon in 2018.

It’s not just ‘sales’ where the opportunity for rural business is great. It’s also the role of digital technology in productivity and innovation – freeing up time businesses spend on potentially laborious tasks such as procurement or data processing – to focus more on what business leaders do best; offering great products to their customers – as well as enjoying their rural lifestyle.

One rural retailer evidently making the most of digital technology from their rural base in Wales is Jem Skelding, founder of Naissance, which was recently voted Exporting Small Business of the Year in our inaugural UK Amazon Small Business awards.

Skelding set up his health and beauty brand, Naissance, in his bedroom in Neath in 2005, selling a collection of ethical, sustainable and organic beauty products. He now sells to customers in 90 countries, employs more than 130 staff in the UK and Germany, and turns over in excess of £10 million.

Naissance not only sells and employs internationally, but Jem has also taken the time to build partnerships with sustainable and ethical growers around the world, sourcing the finest quality raw materials to create great products for customers while ensuring that growers receive the best price for their goods.

Four hours’ drive south from Naissance’s HQ lies another notable example of rural retail success. Joey Foster, a former Formula 3 racing driver, who founded and runs Roseland Furniture from Truro, in Cornwall. Following a serious racing injury, Foster re-evaluated his options and in 2005 began selling furniture online. Despite the connectivity challenges that rural retailers can face, with valuable regional investment in internet infrastructure, Roseland Furniture saw sales take off online. The one-man operation has now grown to a team of 30 and its products have been featured on national TV, by Alan Titchmarsh on 60 Minute Makeover.

So, while Foster and his family enjoy their coastal lifestyle, Roseland Furniture continues to grow, reaching and serving customers from all corners of the UK via stores such as Amazon and the business has opened a store in Truro’s town centre to engage its local customer base too.

These are just two of the many growing rural retailers that are harnessing the power of digital technology and raising the bar for customer experience. Ultimately, we think that technology and the internet have only just begun to show their potential in rural Britain and we are keen to play our part in that growth. One rural business owner summed it up well an interview with Rural England, saying: “Digital is like the coming of the Victorian railways. That’s how important it is, that’s the analogy. But it will happen in a much shorter period.”