We talk to the three entrepreneurs who launched a new way to revitalise the high street
A locally focused delivery app, which was set up in Urmston in 2019, has had an unanticipated boost due to the COVID-19 lockdown. Shocal - which employs local drivers to deliver food, groceries, books and more from independent, local businesses - soft launched last November with the aim of saving Urmston's high street.
People are kicking off saying there’s no toilet roll in Asda but we could deliver a four pack of toilet roll to your house within the hour
Things had been steadily building when everything changed as COVID-19 decimated the hospitality industry as we know it. Panic-buying, combined with a UK lockdown, meant people were in dire need of a solution like Shocal. We spoke to Lance Knight, one of the founders of the app, at the end of an exhausting week.
Urmston-based neighbours Max Thorley - a web developer for the NHS - and Ashley Washington - an independent florist - wanted to help independents competing with ‘the big boys’ amidst increasing business rates and the rise of convenience culture. It’s no secret that the likes of Deliveroo and Uber Eats charge so much commission that smaller businesses struggle to make that work for them. Their idea was to set up an app that paid a fair wage to drivers and took minimal commission from businesses in order to support Urmston's vibrant high street.
With a history of scaling up businesses, dentist-to-the-stars Lance Knight came on board to help make the idea a reality. Little did they know how vital this lifeline would become.
Lance told Confidentials: "For me, there’s nothing more soul destroying than going down a high street and it’s dominated by big chains like Boots, Starbucks, Sainsbury’s - you could be anywhere. In Urmston, we have an amazing artisan, award-winning butchers called Howarth’s. Hayley from the fishmongers, What’s The Catch, goes out and gets the fish herself at four in the morning. You can have a real conversation and really understand where you’re getting your produce from. Our goal is really to save the high street.
"Now with everything that’s happened, we have saved a great number of people from going out of business. We’re putting thousands of pounds into their pocket every day."
“We worked together to create an app that’s functional, quick and easy to use. Everything is about local businesses. We’ve got local drivers who supply their local area and you have to be an independent retailer to be on it.”
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, things were going well but the current situation has increased demand dramatically.
“We’ve taken on 20 new drivers in the past couple of days to help support the demand. Suddenly, everyone's seen the value of this.”
“We pay our drivers double what the big boys do. All the people that work for us now were laid off or self employed and had no work. They’ve all now got enough money to feed and clothe their family and keep a roof over their head.
“We charge less than half the commission that the big players do. Supermarkets have such buying power that they dictate the buying price for farmers rather than the other way around. It’s the same with the big boys of delivery. They say 'We’ve got a massive app, if you want to go on it it costs a fortune and we’re going to take a massive chunk.'
"We’re not looking at bleeding a retailer dry. We’re doing the opposite. The whole reason that we set this up is to promote and boost their businesses.”
The big difference with Shocal is it has a function that a lot of other apps don’t: the ability to do a multi-point order.
“If you want to order an Italian but your partner wants to order from their favourite Greek restaurant, and you want some wine from your favourite wine shop, you can get that in one delivery.”
Apps like Shocal help to encourage self isolation and mean fewer people out and about. Their drivers are well trained and have gloves, masks, and sanitiser so the risk of infection is minimal. It’s also a way to check in on people who might be vulnerable.
“A drop off is a bit like a comedy sketch. You run over, knock on the door, put the parcel down, run back to the gate and wait. Then the customer opens the door, they give me the thumbs up, I give them the thumbs up, ‘Are you ok?’ We have a quick chat and away we go.
"Some people haven’t seen anybody apart from us. They’re self isolating. They have no family, no friends nearby. We’re their only point of contact. So if they're elderly or vulnerable, we get to make sure that they’re being seen and they’re ok.
"For some it’s really traumatic. One lady’s broken her leg and she’s self isolating so she can hardly get around. For us to deliver her shopping for her makes it so much easier.
"On Sundays we deliver a carvery from a number of places. I went to deliver to a guy in his seventies and he was on his own. If you’re living on your own, you’re not going to go to the effort of cooking a Sunday roast for one. You’re just going to be having cold food, sandwiches, something simple. It may be the only hot meal he’s had in a few days. We’ve got to keep their energy up and make sure everyone’s ok."
Lance is encouraging more local businesses across Manchester to get in touch. Shocal is a way for small businesses to keep going during this difficult time and he believes it could be the difference between which restaurants are left standing at the end of it all.
One of the positives that can come out of this whole situation is communities pulling together and realising how valuable local businesses are. The appetite for interesting independents and community spirit has already increased in recent years and hopefully even more appreciation of them is something we’ll take with us out of this.
“There’s been a paradigm shift in people’s thoughts. I saw someone on Facebook saying next year never mind the Oscars, I want to see red carpet events for all the doctors, nurses, delivery drivers - the people who are actually valuable when it matters. I love this country. Whatever your politics, we all pull together.”
But what about the panic buyers?
"We had to take the butchers off the app last week when it all kicked off because he just couldn’t cope with the demand. For them it was like Christmas but without the organisation and the supply chain. People were walking into the fridge or freezer section, putting their hand out and not even looking what they were buying, just grabbing whatever meat they could get hold of. The shelves were bare.
"People are queuing up, kicking off saying there’s no toilet roll whatsoever in Asda, but we could deliver a four pack of toilet roll to your house from a local convenience store within the hour - along with all your other essentials."
Shocal also gives back 10% of their profits to the local community, with app users in that area having a say in how that money is spent. That could be improving the Christmas lights display or putting a new swing or benches in the park, or it could just be clearing a pathway or putting in a pond, the community decides.
Currently the app covers Urmston, Davyhulme, Flixton, Partington and Stretford. Sale has gone live this week and hopefully the whole of Greater Manchester will follow. If you live in any of these areas, you can download the app and start using it now. People in other areas can download it and set up an account ready for their area to get on board.