Providing a Voice for Locals
As the Voice For Locals initiative marks one year since its introduction to Northern Ireland, founder Jay Thattai tells NR of its successes so far.
First seen as the ‘too good to be true’ initiative when it was launched in March 2022, Voice For Locals is a GB-based consortium and levelling up initiative, sponsored by the UK Community Renewal Fund (UKCRF).
The Voice for Locals initiative secured the largest grant of £1.822m from the UK Government, enabling it to support the bounce-back of the small business sector in Northern Ireland.
The grant was the largest in Northern Ireland and the fifth largest in the UK, allowing Voice For Locals to offer participating NI micro and small businesses a range of free skills, marketing and other services to aid business recovery and return to profitability.
INNOVATING NEW PROCESSES
Designed to tech-enable local businesses, help them innovate new processes and develop skills that would grow the local economy, Jay explained they completed the project and exceeded their commitments with the government, despite a “dramatic last 10 months”.
“In the last 12 months, Voice For Locals has levelled up 565 retailers. The majority of retailers who came forward to avail of our benefits were from FMCG, food and beverages, fashion, interior and automotive sectors,” said Jay.
“Of the 565 retailers, 269 of them were retailers with no employees selling either online or in a market; 169 of them had 1 to 9 employees and 127 of them had 10 to 250 employees.
“Of the 565, 127 were women-owned and 436 were men-owned retail business; 448 of the 565 neighbourhood retailers registered with basic digital skills. Whilst the size, gender and digital skills of the beneficiaries vary, the problems they faced in understanding customers were the same.”
Voice For Locals is the brainchild of Jay in order to 10x the local economy, globally. He said it was a “perfect time” to position this plan to the UK Government to level up businesses coming out of covid in 2021-2022.
‘In the last 12 months, Voice For Locals has levelled up 565 retailers. The majority of retailers who came forward to avail of our benefits were from FMCG, food and beverages, fashion, interior and automotive sectors’
Having partnered with City & Guilds for assured recognition of a course he created from scratch for micro and small businesses, Jay put together a team to reach out to local councils, chambers, Business Improvement Districts, local business networks, markets, further education colleges and universities.
He also visited local businesses across the province to deliver the benefits, and although a “relentless” task, he said it has been an “incredible experience” so far.
Coming from a middle-class Indian family, with three generations having lived in the same house with regular visitors, Jay said that meant “people are first, always”.
“My parents are government servants in India. The intent to give back to the country that we live in was laid very strong within me. As a middle-class family, I was always taught to spend money wisely and look for value and always deliver value,” he said.
He migrated to the UK under the highly-skilled migrant programme and has offered his technology expertise to brands including BT, BP, John Lewis, New Look, Telefonica and Everything Everywhere.
He said he is “now on a mission demystify state-of-the-art technology and democratise it to the digitally-excluded local businesses, globally to 10x the local and global economies”.
‘PROVIDING NEW TOOLS’
As Jay explained, there is still little focus by NI retailers on data collection towards understanding customer contact details, their expectations, experiences, emotions, behaviour, preferences and loyalty.
“This is the data that online giants like Amazon have, that small independent retailers don’t, to bring about appropriate changes to their business,” he said.
Voice For Locals helps retailers know their customers, retain their customers and attract more customers with its tools, skills and training at zero cost.
Jay said the Voice For Locals initiative has been an “overwhelming” success for NI businesses, with 308 retailers having innovated new processes in their business.
“They now read their customers better with the skill training and digital tools given to them,” said Jay.
“The initiative has come out with four innovation plans to 10x their business growth. We have launched an NI-wide e-commerce platform with a substore for every council. Retailers can avail of the online platform and save their costs on running, maintaining and spending on expensive platforms.
“We have developed a high street community selling feature in the app, that is given to them to help cross-promote each other’s business in the same street and we recently launched a vending machine to exclusively promote products made in Northern Ireland.”
‘Local brands quietly sell their great products in a market or in their shop somewhere in NI, while the Voice For Locals vending machines will sell their products all over Northern Ireland offering them a 10x growth’
While vending machines have of course been existence for years, the innovation in this case is to make them a medium to sell products exclusively made locally in NI.
“Nearly 300 businesses we have supported make incredible products in Northern Ireland, but not many local consumers know these local brands,” said Jay.
“The local brands quietly sell their great products in a market or in their shop somewhere in NI, while the Voice For Locals vending machines will sell their products all over Northern Ireland offering them a 10x growth.
“The vending machine will also be integrated to our e-commerce portals to market other local businesses whose products or services or events cannot be sold in the vending machine. The vending machines will also issue rewards for consumers that shop locally and support the local economy.
“The model can be replicated in any council in England, Scotland, Wales or globally too, but we can proudly say it all started in Northern Ireland.”
Voice For Locals was launched as a fully-funded initiative by the UK Government through the UK Community Renewal Fund, with funding covering them until December 2022. Jay said they have been pleased with the support so far.
“The support we have received from the Minister of State, MLAs, MPs and the Department for the Economy has been really encouraging.
“With the success of our initial programme, we have launched our innovation plans and are looking forward to applying local and national funding schemes to 10x the local economy in Northern Ireland. The support from Stormont has been fantastic for us.”
Describing Voice For Locals as an “eventful initiative” Jay said they are planning a series of launch events for the new vending machines across the province.
“We are running skill development programmes for students with Further Education Colleges who are either aspiring retailers or want to work with retailers, and we will also be planning a research proposal with the Department for the Economy in the coming weeks.
“We are always open for collaboration with councils, chambers, Business Improvement Districts, local business networks, social enterprises and educational institutions to partner with us to extend the benefits to the beneficiaries.
“We also invite local retailers to come forward and speak to us about 10x their sales on e-commerce, vending machines, cross promotions and upskilling. We choose to be a Voice For Locals because we just love locals.”
TO VIEW THE FULL FEATURE WITH JAY THATTAI IN THE MARCH ISSUE OF NEIGHBOURHOOD RETAILER, CLICK HERE