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It’s Small Business Saturday tomorrow, and small business owners will be hoping for a repeat of last year’s £468 million of sales at special events across the country. It’s a good week to be one of them – as well as the Saturday boost, George Osborne’s Autumn statement extended small business rate relief again and promised a review of business rates for 2016.

shop independent
From @LolaHoadDesign


Since the turn of the century there’s been a 40% increase in the number of firms with less than 10 employees. At the RSA we argue that this growth in self-employment and microbusiness is a good thing, and a trend that should be supported by policy. The RSA’s Power of Small project has found that despite lower incomes and fewer perks, the self-employed are more satisfied and happier overall than most other groups in the wider workforce. It’s an area for high potential growth, although our latest report, Everyday Employers, highlights the need for smarter policy to encourage the self-employed to take on employees. Microbusinesses are also at the forefront of the move to a circular economy. Makerspaces such as FabLab London are providing individuals and businesses with access to sustainable design tools – makers are becoming fixers and simultaneously reducing waste.

But despite the boom, challenges remain for these new businesses. The internet offers sellers the potential to cut out expensive middle men – to promote and sell to buyers directly, and the lower associated costs go some way to explaining the growth in microbusiness in the last 15 years. But its effects are bittersweet. The internet cuts costs indiscriminately and large multinational businesses such as Amazon also benefit, to the detriment of small online sellers as well as the high streets at the heart of many communities. While the connectivity offered by the net has been hailed as the bringer of a disintermediated economy, another interpretation is that the medium – or the middle man – is simply changing. The modern online place of exchange such as YouTube or eBay may be cheaper at the point of use than the old, but when users across the world hand these companies data and minimal charges, they also hand them power and dominance of the net.

This weekend I challenge you to avoid the big retailers and to look for presents in unusual places

The business rate review is important in this context, because as commentators have noted our current system is looking increasingly outdated. Business rates are calculated and charged based on the rental value of business premises, benefitting online retailers such as Asos who will pay just £935,000 in rates on their £700 million turnover while businesses of similar size in London pay £11.5million.

What does this have to do with the Christmas shopper? Well, it’s part of a wider conversation about how we decide what we buy and where we want our money to go, and one that’s gathering momentum. British shoppers may have spent £810 million on Black Friday, but a campaign to boycott Amazon this Christmas has already cost the giant retailer over £3million. And while buying from small businesses adds your support for the little man rather than a tax-dodging multinational, it’s also a good idea if you’re looking for an unusual gift that comes with a story of its own.

So, this weekend I challenge you to avoid the big retailers and to look for presents in unusual places. Here are some ideas to get started with (and please excuse the London bias):

1. Buy direct from makers at a market

Guaranteed to be more enjoyable than a last-minute dash to Westfield on Christmas Eve.

animalesque head
Beautiful hand printed animal heads from @Animalesque02


Etsy House, Covent Garden. The RSA has been working on a project with Etsy, The Power of Small, seeking to better understand the community of microbusiness owners in the UK. Check out the wares of Etsy sellers in the flesh, from Friday to Sunday.

- ‘Xmas marks the spot’ is hosted by the Hackney Pirates, an enterprising charity working to develop the literacy, confidence and perseverance of young people in Hackney. A free hot spiced cider in the Ship of Adventures, which sells local makers’ products, is conducive to successful Christmas shopping – or so I’m told.

- If you’re in the South West, head to the The Frome Independent. The Christmas edition of this monthly market for local artisans and traders promises to be something special

- Support the creative community and check out the Designers Makers market at Spitalfields, running on the 15/16 and 20/21 December. They’re an agency and platform cultivating new talent and helping freelance practitioners to flourish.

2.  Short of cash? Be creative with the resources you already have.

- Hack Christmas at the RSA FabLab this weekend with the team. They’ll be bringing a ton of hardware including sensors, LEDs… and a confetti cannon for you to turn your creative attentions to, all for free.

Stag jumper upgraded to an Xmas sweat by @mutecollective


-  Spruce up last year’s unwanted gifts with some sugru/pompoms/glitter to make new and better models. Counter your guilt with the knowledge that it’s going to a better home than the back of your cupboard.

3.  Back one of the RSA's kickstarter projects and gift the reward

- The RSA supports all sorts of projects through Kickstarter – previous successfully funded projects include Fable and Base who sell beautifully designed and sustainable fabrics.

-  How about giving a ticket to a post-show reception of the all-female Richard III? An unusual gift that could be yours by pledging here.

If you have more ideas, leave them in the comments section!


Carys Roberts is a research intern at the RSA. You can follow her @carysroberts.


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