London's Small Businesses Get Creative
About four miles east of London’s shiny new Olympic Stadium sits The Who Shop, a 22-year-old retail store that serves as a fan emporium of the fictional Doctor Who character. For owner Alexandra Looseley-Saul, the stadium is a daily reminder of the excitement--and uncertainty--the Games will bring.
“We’re hoping [the Games are] not going to put off our normal international customers,” she says. “We just don’t want to be in a position where people don’t want to [visit us].”
Her fears aren’t unfounded. Though the Games have been billed as a boon to London’s economy, a recent survey by the Federation of Small Businesses found that 25% of entrepreneurs believe the Olympics will have a negative impact on small businesses, and a staggering 62% say the Games will have no positive long-term effects.
In the past five years, some 450 of London’s small businesses reportedly have been relocated to make room for half a dozen new athletic venues, and as many as 100 have already gone out of business.
The small-business ecosystem has changed, and the roller coaster is just beginning. From foot traffic to traffic jams, day-to-day business for London’s little guy won’t be the same-;despite support outreach initiatives from the local government.
Now, with the Games just around the corner, local small-business owners are buckling down and coming up with ways to survive this landscape.
One of the biggest concerns for most small-business owners is traffic. The Games are expected to bring half a million tourists and fans to London, and many business owners say they expect the strain on the city’s already overtaxed transit system to disrupt business and possibly lose them money.
“I’ve been trying for six months to get some definite information,” says Andrew Stanley, a woodworking specialist who has been located about two miles from the current stadium site for 20 years. “They always refer you to websites with loads of maps on them.”
His company is small, with 10 employees and about a dozen clients. But because the summer is his busiest season, his plan is to shift his schedule.
“We’re just going to come in at four o’clock in the morning [to beat traffic],” he says. “What we’re saying to people is, ‘If you want to have us deliver stuff on time, we need access to your site at some time that’s convenient for us.’”
And he’s hoping for patience from his clients. “We’d expect people to work together with us to get this job done,” he adds.
The Who Shop’s Looseley-Saul is preparing by revamping her marketing efforts.
She hopes to lure visitors to her shop to learn about the iconic British science-fiction character by distributing 50,000 flyers, advertising the store’s offerings and special events, to people attending the Games. The store has never done a campaign this large before: The advertising cost £575 (or $883) to print and deliver to tourist spots.
But she can’t rely on the Games to market her business: Olympic officials are keeping a tight rein on any nonlicensed business that tries to use words, images, or logos to associate itself with the Olympics.
Railroad Hackney is a small café, bar, and bookshop about 10 minutes away from the stadium by train. The company’s management is hoping to attract hungry visitors through official tourist publications, although it has higher hopes of attracting visitors through existing online reviews.
“We will be advertising in Olympic brochures, but we are hoping that visitors will be attracted to us by reading our reviews and making a trip to see us,” says manager and co-owner Matthew Doran.
With only four employees, Doran has asked staff members to take their vacation days before or after the Games to keep the café running during the festivities.
“[We’re] a little nervous, because there are so many unknowns,” he says. “If we were a little closer to the stadium, then it would be a given that we will be busy, but as we are just outside that area, we will have to wait and see.”
This widespread disruption wasn’t the hope of local officials when they landed the 2012 Games. The London Business Network was set up more than four years ago to maximize the involvement of local businesses in contracts with the Games. In 2008, the group set up a business-opportunity-matching platform portal called CompeteFor, a sort of dating site to set up local contractors such as caterers, carpenters, or translation providers with Olympics-related contracts.
Since its launch, CompeteFor has signed on 160,000 local businesses to bid for 11,000 projects or business opportunities, worth about £2 billion ($2.5 billion), says Brett Taylor, London Business Network’s chief executive.
The group has also held business workshops and networking events, helped disseminate traffic information, and is encouraging companies to look for opportunities not just directly attached to the Games.
But at least a few small businesses have managed to get a piece of the action.
For instance, a local company called Bike Dock Solutions won a contract to install bike shelters and racks throughout London, with the goal of taking some of the burden off the existing transportation system.
“I think the momentum is starting to change,” Taylor says. “The Olympic torch has now arrived in the U.K. That is really starting to have an enthusiastic effect."
A recent survey found that small businesses that landed these types of contracts will make up half of the total GDP from the Games.
TIM DONNELLY | Columnist | Inc.com Contributor
Tim Donnelly is a freelance writer and managing editor of Brokelyn.com. His work has appeared in Billboard, The Atlantic, Thought Catalog, and The New York Post.