Pixie: Putting the pounds in personal
By World Infrastructure Journal-
Local businesses once provided a window into the soul of a community, reflecting the unique traits of an area and the skills of its residents. Today, it is almost impossible to walk into any national supermarket or coffee chain and be able to name where most of the products have come from nor the history of the brand. It would not matter whether you are in Birmingham or Brighton, the experience and the products on offer will be largely the same. Yet in a time of growing one-click consumerism, Greg Barden, Founder and CEO of Pixie hopes to put our pounds back into the personal by putting independent businesses back at the heart of our communities.
A community mission borne from conflict
Despite growing rapidly in the historical Somerset town of Bath, the origins of Pixie lie much further afield in Mr Barden’s military tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. During daily trips to buy coffee from Iraqi bazaars or loaves of bread from a baker in Helmand Province, he saw first-hand the basic need of commerce. Apt in a time of deep political divisions, he explained to World Infrastructure Journal that it made him realise “how quickly walls and barriers were pulled down by having that common ground”.
Upon returning to the UK, it was clear that this personal interaction in trade was disappearing rapidly and with it, so was our sense of community. Compared to other Western European countries where produce markets dominate local economies, Mr Barden explained that in the UK, there is a culture that “life has simply moved on”. Yet Pixie was not born out of nostalgia but instead about finding a better quality of life and re-discovering the joy of supporting communities.
How does it work?
Pixie is an innovative app that connects users to a marketplace of independent businesses and rewards them for shopping there. With any smartphone, shoppers are able to load money on to a unique QR card to use in connected businesses. In return they receive Pixie points – essentially cash back - that they are able to use in any other store signed up, in any part of the country.
Each business is provided with a card machine that lets Pixie know when someone has shopped there - but without taking any value away from the sale. This is a step away from Visa and Mastercard, both of whom control most card machine transactions across the world, receiving a cut of every payment. Instead, with Pixie, Mr Barden hopes to “apply an alternative with a view to keeping more money within the local economies. ”
It is hoped that the app will help visitors and residents alike become more emersed into the culture of a local area and view local businesses as a reflection of the community.
The local gone global
This vision is not confined to the South West of England, however, and Pixie is aiming for users to live like a local anywhere on the planet. With a rapidly expanding team of regional growth managers, Mr Barden is looking to start by setting up and building relationships with communities across the UK. The human element will be kept at the centre of their business growth model by using personal interaction to drive forward and support local communities to make the leap together.
“My biggest belief is that we are strong together as a community of agencies all the way down to market traders and services. The only way we can compete is if we come together and act as one. ”
This competition is key. In a year in which Amazon sales have grown by over 50 per cent in the UK and online shopping became essential during multiple lockdowns, it is hard to see how small independent businesses can compete. With more money than some small countries, these multi-national corporations have planted themselves as behemoths of our economy that are able to undercut and scale up at rapid pace.
This same period, however, has also highlighted more than ever the basic human desire for social interaction and the importance of community. Loneliness has become one of the fastest growing diseases of our time, especially amongst the older generation who can oftentimes feel excluded from an ever-digitising society. Social media is making us more connected than ever, but can disconnect users from the community around them. As we start to re-open our local areas, with people in desperate need of experience and interaction, now is the perfect time for local businesses to compete.
Mr Barden was clear however, this can only happen when equal opportunity is secured. “In an open market” he said “you cannot and should not control too much, but all you want is a level playing field that allows people to make their own decisions”. Amazon was used as an example of a company which seemingly gets special favours and is notoriously able to avoid tax to support the local areas it operates in. For politicians, the arrival of these large corporations in their area are political winners that can quickly bring a number of jobs to the local economy. It can score a number of points despite the detrimental long-term impact on the type of employment in the area and ultimately what this can mean for quality of life.
Introducing more protective policy can go a long way in making a huge impact in the culture of the economy. “We need the environment to be conducive of allowing entrepreneurs – everyday mums and dads – to turn their passion into a reality” he explained. Yet this is currently a difficult task as independent businesses have been hit disproportionately hard by growing rent rates. In the South West, he said some have to generate as much as £40,000 annually before they make a profit which is a big ask for those just starting out.
For local councils, usually the biggest landlords in any community, this drop on rental income would create an enormous hole in their budget. Instead there are many other models which could help support businesses in local areas.
One of which is Flatpack Democracy currently running in Frome, a small town of 25,000 in Somerset which Pixie also operates in. Amongst other community-based policies such as a renewable energy cooperative and a ‘share shop’, it has also allowed a local investor to buy up many properties. While not normally seen as conducive to keeping community alive, the investor has dramatically dropped all rental rates and allowed entrepreneurs to move in. This has led to a turn-around of the area with weekly outdoor markets and what Mr Barden described as a “thriving community of local businesses. ”
Communities similarly coming together is possible across the UK and in a post-covid economy which has exponentially hit independent businesses, they need more support than ever. The Pixie founder explained that their app is part of a wider vision and while they “ want people to go through those front doors, we’ve got to keep those front doors open in the first place”
“What we’ve got to do is keep the lights on, driving sales and if that’s online then so be it. ”
In supporting this goal, the Pixie team are launching a new service at the end of May that will allow users to know if local businesses are able to deliver. With some businesses offering same-day delivery and prices cheaper than big brands, they are hoping this will allow them to compete with the likes of Amazon and show that it is just as efficient to buy local. “Independent businesses can compete with online and the convenience factor” he said “but only if they are given the right tools and infrastructure."
“People like a human connection and it is not always cheaper to use big business. We have vibrant communities that can offer an alternative. ”
The future mission
Enthusiasm for the app gives hope for a more connected future but this is not something that can be achieved alone. “We are trying to write that societal push but we definitely need help” he explained. Instead, we need to push our politicians to ensure equal opportunities for local businesses and put our pounds back into our places.
“Our communities can become hotspots of common ground of people coming together and having the experience of human connection”. After a year of distancing, this vision sounds more appealing than ever.
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