Bristol Pound rides independent retail wave

Independent retailers are faced with the twin threats of depressed consumer spending and aggressive chains – but businesses and politicians in Bristol think they have a solution.

Bristol has become the first city in the UK to launch its own local currency, following similar schemes in Brixton and Totnes. The scheme’s founders hope that the currency, which launched last week, will encourage consumers to stick with independent retailers, while helping to keep money in the local economy.

How does it work?

The Bristol Pound is the brainchild of the Bristol Credit Union. It is distributed as hologrammed notes, which have an exchange rate with sterling of 1:1. Shoppers can buy the currency in a range of outlets around Bristol, and businesses are being invited to accept it.

There is currently some £125,000 worth of the currency in circulation, and it is thought that this figure will rise to more than £500,000 during the coming year. Customers of the Bristol Credit Union can also make payments in Bristol Pounds using their mobile phone, in a fashion similar to that seen on Barclays’ Pingit.

Consumers are the primary initial ‘target market’, but businesses are also being encouraged to use Bristol Pounds to pay suppliers, in a further effort to keep cash in the local economy. A number of large businesses, including a budget airline, have reportedly approached the Credit Union to enquire about accepting the currency – but the Bristol Pound is aimed squarely at independent firms.

What does this mean?

The rise of local currencies (or rather, their resurrection; local currencies were historically commonplace) is broadly considered to be good news for independent firms, and for local communities. Their primary aim is to encourage consumers to spend their money with independent retailers. At a time when small retailers are suffering from consumers’ tightened purse strings, this is a welcome intervention.

But local currencies also seem indicative of an encouraging trend towards independence on the High Street. Out of town shopping centres might be able to offer lower prices, but consumers seem to be increasingly keen to spend their money in outlets with a sense of character. Recent research from Simply Business found that the High Street is going boutique, with specialist retailers proliferating across the country. In Bristol, for example, delicatessens and coffee shops are amongst the fastest growing High Street fixtures.

The Bristol Pound looks set to boost business in the city – but it is also illustrative of an independent retail sector newly invigorated, despite the economic clouds.