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UK SME retailers pivot with digital services for long-term recovery

Published 02/09/2021

The UK’s small-to-medium-sized enterprise (SME) retailers are investing in digital services to meet changing customer expectations for long-term recovery and resilience. Global payments company, Elavon, and its subsidiary, Opayo, conducted a two-pronged study, from the perspective of both consumers and business-owners, to understand how these businesses adapted over the past year, how they feel about the future and what experiences consumers value most. 

The research indicates that most SMEs have permanently transformed the way they interact with their customers, with 9 out of 10 introducing new digital services. Additionally, four out of five (82%) businesses say that retailers without an online presence are unlikely to survive in the future. 

Business perspective

Research1  by Opayo and its partner, Discover ® Global Network, shows that UK SMEs are offering new services such as: establishing an online shop (67%); home delivery options (62%); or click and collect capabilities (35%). Additionally, 77% of SMEs now sell directly to consumers via social media platforms such as Facebook, TikTok or Instagram, compared to just 41% before the pandemic.  

Additionally, 82% of SMEs believe that online is where the majority of sales will come from in the future.

Consumer input

Elavon’s consumer survey2 of more than 1,100 respondents in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, conducted by Ipsos MORI, underscores that offering a convenient eCommerce experience is crucial to attracting customers and generating loyalty. 

UK consumers prioritise the following factors when deciding where to spend online: 


A clear and accurate product description


  • The ability to find what I want

  • Clear and accurate product photos

  • Products sold at competitive prices  


  • Ability to pay without completing forms

  • Fast and convenient delivery

  • Good customer service


  • Payment details being stored safely and securely


  • Free returns

However, the shift to eCommerce doesn’t mean the end of the High Street. Nine out of ten UK consumers indicate they want to support their local businesses. Additionally, three quarters of businesses (73%)3 say they will continue to have a physical location to service customers. 

Retailers can take a cue from what consumers’ value most4 when shopping in-store, including:  

  • 97%   Being well-stocked 

  • 96%   Quick and convenient payment

  • 95%   Quickly find what I need 

  • 94%   Assessing quality in-person 

  • 93%   Shops having adequate Health, Environment and Safety (HES) measures to prevent    the spread of COVID-19 

Commenting on the findings, Sean Wilson, Managing Director, at Opayo said: 

“Our research highlights that it’s not solely larger companies focusing on digital growth. SMEs pivoted during the pandemic by shifting their focus to eCommerce, social media channels and home delivery services to generate sales and loyalty.” 

“While a physical presence remains important for many retailers, SMEs are successfully combining in-store and online sales channels and payment options to be more customer centric and for long-term resilence.”

Isaac Scott, the Brand & Marketing Director of Seven Districts Coffee, based in Leeds, illustrated how he innovated and adapted his business to best focus on the customer experience:    

“Having an online presence is as important as having a physical presence. We want both parts of the business to feel like an experience. Seeing a roaster roasting coffee is an experience. Online, part of the subscription model that we are launching involves sending books with our coffee. Enjoying coffee takes loads of different experiences, not just one". 



[1] Research commissioned by Opayo and Discover® Global Network and conducted by Savanta on 160 UK small businesses April 15-30, 2021.

[2] Research commissioned by Elavon and Ipsos MORI on 1,129 UK adults aged 16-75 between May 28-June 1, 2021.

[3] Research by Opayo and Discover® Global Network, conducted between April 15-30, 2021.

[4] Research by Elavon and Ipsos MORI, conducted between May 28-June 1, 2021.