More than a quarter (26%) of small business owners in the UK believe that they will be forced to cease trading if the outlook for their business does not improve – a potentially detrimental blow to the UK economy.
The SME Insights Report, published by small business insurance provider Simply Business, also found that 48% of SME owners believe the rising cost of living is the most glaring challenge facing their business.
Over half (63%) say that rising taxes, interest rates, and inflation are eating into profit margins, with many also grappling with trying to claw back thousands of pounds in unpaid bills.
Over half (52%) of SMEs anticipate a decrease in profits by up to 20% in 2023, with customer retention (26%) and lack of funding (25%) cited as factors affecting business. It comes as the Bank of England drives up interest rates to the highest level since the 2008 financial crisis, making access to financing near impossible for many small firms.
Skyrocketing energy costs
Further questions remain about the long-term effects of the increased cost of energy. Over a quarter (26%) of SMEs are now spending up to 40% more on energy each month compared to the previous year, with some reporting an astonishing 150% increase in their monthly energy expenses.
With reduced government support since April 2023 and many businesses locked into high-energy tariffs, challenges with unpredictable fluctuations in price remain set to persist.
Annelise Sealy, owner of The Fall Bride in Hackney, east London, said, “Our building is modern spec, well-insulated, and our energy output is minimal. We don’t use any energy-intensive equipment and we run everything as efficiently as possible. And yet, over the course of the past year, our monthly bill has fluctuated between £100 and £1100 despite us doing nothing differently.
“There hasn’t been any clarity offered on what the long term solution is. Without a clear view on the monthly outgoings of the business, I simply cannot plan.”
Resilience measures adopted by SMEs
To combat unfavourable financial conditions, SMEs are employing various resilience measures. Over a quarter (27%) are resorting to using personal savings to prop up their business, nearly a third (29%) of businesses seeking bank loans and 23% seeking a loan from family and friends to support their operations.
Meanwhile, two thirds (62%) state that they plan to increase prices in the next six months in order to stay afloat during these tricky economic times, showing a 13% rise when compared to 12 months ago. Other measures include holding off employing new hires (23%) and putting expansion plans on hold (22%).
Jonathan Portes, Senior Fellow of the Economic and Social Research Council and Professor of Economics and Public Policy at King’s College London said, “Two themes emerge from this report. First, the extent of the continued pressures on SMEs from the wider economic environment.
“While the energy price spike has abated, and labour shortages have eased somewhat, more generalised inflationary pressures mean that SMEs are being squeezed from both ends, with some input costs rising and consumer demand impacted as real incomes have fallen.
“Recent rises in interest rates will exacerbate both. Second, and more optimistically, the resilience of the sector despite all this; the vast majority of SMEs remain positive about their own prospects, not just for survival but for growth, and most also expect the economy to improve.
“The overall impression is of a sector that has adapted to the UK economy’s seeming near-permanent state of continual semi-crisis. Given the importance of SMEs to the overall economy, this should give some cause for – very cautious- relative optimism about the UK’s economic prospects over the next year, at least compared to some of the more gloomy forecasts of the last few weeks.”
Confidence amidst challenges
Despite the prevailing economic challenges, more than half (54%) of businesses remain optimistic that the UK economy will improve this year, and SME confidence continues to grow as three quarters (77%) express confidence about their business prospects over the next six months.
Taylor Rutter, Contract Carpenter based in Northamptonshire said “Despite the challenges, I am feeling confident about the future of my business. My work is still in demand, and I have the unique advantage of being able to be flexible, which means that I can pick up extra jobs and take time off as and when I need.
“Having said that, I do think that the government should not rest on its laurels when it comes to SMEs – if the millions of small businesses in the UK are given the tools to succeed, then we will all feel the benefit.”
Alan Thomas, UK CEO at Simply Business “The stoic spirit of small business owners is the backbone of the UK economy – their resilience is vital to the nation’s recovery and growth. The fact that many SMEs across the UK are struggling so significantly is a serious cause for concern for the British economy and communities.
“Naturally, the impact on consumer purchasing behaviour is trickling through to the books of small business owners at a time when SMEs need our support the most. The reduced levels of cash-flow and liquidity will only make things worse for many. Small businesses sit at the heart of our communities and are vital to our economy, and it is essential that we continue to support them in these times of financial uncertainty.”