Opinion: 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.

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.”

Simon Donegan is the UK head of seller services, Amazon
First published in Essential Retail