If there were a league table of the holders of the most stressful jobs in retail in 2020, then Helen Dickinson, as CEO of the British Retail Consortium, would be near the top. Representing 170 major retailers, who between them have revenues of £180bn and employ over 1.5 million employees, Helen and her team at the BRC have been tirelessly helping the industry address disruption on a never-before-seen scale. Over the last few months, the industry has rallied together to keep the nation fed, pivoted at lightening speeds to new ways of trading and adapted to ever-changing and nationally-varied lockdown restrictions. On top of the pandemic, the UK’s exit from the European Union is just over the horizon, threatening yet more uncertainty and disruption.
Earlier this week, I caught up with Helen. Our conversation came at an interesting point in the week: just over an hour before Boris Johnson laid out his plans to lift the lockdown in England and remove restrictions on much of the retail sector. As the retail community hoped, our PM confirmed on Monday that England’s lockdown will lift on December 2nd, giving ‘non-essential’ businesses the green light to resume trading. In the run up to Christmas and mid-way through the sector’s busiest period, the significance of re-openings cannot be overstated.
“If retail in England was to remain closed, there would be serious concertina effects for the whole industry. This is a make or break period for much of the industry. Many of our members, who had invested heavily in social distancing infrastructures and done everything the government had asked, have been scratching their heads about why they were closed in the first place,” Helen tells me over Zoom. “Also, our online infrastructure just simply isn’t big enough to meet the demands of Christmas shopping. If shops weren’t able to open in the UK, retailers would not be able to meet demand safely… and, as we all know, gift giving is such an integral part of the Christmas experience”.
Looking back over the last ten months, the retail industry has been tested in ways we couldn’t have imagined – but has responded with truly inspiring levels of humanity, agility and strength. The industry has been at the forefront of the UK’s fight against the pandemic, coming together to keep the country moving. While this period has been immensely challenging, we witnessed a burgeoning sense of camaraderie and togetherness, as retailers collaborated to find creative solutions to the global crisis.
One of the things that Helen is most proud of is how the BRC influenced government to find ways of ensuring the industry could continue operating, at least in part, even during the darkest days of the first lockdown. “We were central to getting competition laws suspended, curfews lifted and driver hours suspended – this kept the nation fed. We wrote guidance for warehouses to operate with social distancing, long before the government did – this enabled retailers with digital businesses to keep trading, which wasn’t obvious in the early stages.” The BRC also stepped up to the plate to try and calm mass panic: “one of the most significant moments for me personally was standing up at the Prime Minister’s official briefing telling people to please only buy what they need when we thought were going to run out of food.”
“We were central to getting competition laws suspended, curfews lifted and driver hours suspended – this kept the nation fed. We wrote guidance for warehouses to operate with social distancing, long before the government did – this enabled retailers with digital businesses to keep trading, which wasn’t obvious in the early stages.”
Today, things look a bit different. I wondered: does Helen feel that the spirit of togetherness and camaraderie amongst retailers has fallen away?
“Right now, there’s certainly a bit of competitive tension,” Helen told me. “When the government drew arbitrary lines between non-essential and essential retail, in an industry where those lines can’t be clearly drawn, it created a palpable sense of unfairness in the sector.” Indeed, while some retailers are today reporting record revenue numbers, others are struggling with next to zero income and huge fixed cost bases.
With a core team in England, liaising and influencing the UK Government, as well as team members in the each of the devolved nations, I asked Helen how well she feels that government overall has been listening to retail businesses across the UK during this critical time.
“The thing is, the government has got a nightmare job to do,” Helen began, “there are so many conflicting voices looking for different things, with no history book and no guidance.”
At the start of the crisis, Helen tells me, there was a sense of purpose and a united front which made it easier for the retail industry to be heard in government. “In the last five months, however,” she explained, “pressures on government have increased from every side, and ensuring the voice of retail is listened to has become more challenging”
Helen notes that the retail industry is cognisant of the support it has received. Key interventions such as reduced business rates, the furlough scheme and grant schemes for small businesses have been central to the retail sector, compared to adjacent industries which have received comparably less financial support from the government: “Tens of thousands of jobs have been saved, and thousands of retailers wouldn’t be in business without the early government intervention”
“However, when thinking about support,” Helen says, “the main thing is to say that it’s not over yet. We’re not going to be able to judge which measures have been most useful or otherwise until much further down the line.” Obviously, key on the horizon is the rent moratorium, preventing the eviction of commercial tenants for non-payment of rent, until the end of 2020 – but as yet there has been no clarity around if this will be extended into the new year.
Throughout the pandemic, the need for trade bodies has been thrown into sharp relief – reflected in the BRC’s membership, which has grown by 20%. There’s certainly an irony to the fact that it has taken a global pandemic for the BRC to gain more recognition, but it also speaks to the integral and supportive role that industry bodies like the BRC play in their communities during times of crisis. Beyond Covid-19, the next hurdle for businesses to face is Brexit. I wonder how prepared Helen feels the industry is for the UK’s exit from the EU?
“It varies across the industry,” Helen told me, “with larger businesses more prepared than mid-sized or smaller organisations. This should help unblock the figurative – and literal! – traffic jams.
“Brexit is proving to be another indicator of business preparedness more generally,” Helen explained. “A bit like in Covid-19 with pivoting to digital and adapting to social distancing, it’s clear which businesses are benefiting from strong, forward-thinking leadership that covers all bases. Without a doubt, larger businesses, with more resources are able to be better prepared. But prepared doesn’t mean it won’t be without its pain – even those prepared businesses are ready for some level of disruption”
“Brexit is proving to be another indicator of business preparedness more generally. A bit like in Covid-19 with pivoting to digital and adapting to social distancing, it’s clear which businesses are benefiting from strong, forward-thinking leadership that covers all bases.”
“Overall, given everything our industry is dealing with at the moment – particularly for smaller businesses – Brexit probably hasn’t had the airtime or attention it needs. I would say that a sizeable minority of retailers are simply not prepared enough. There are lots of unknown elements,” Helen continued, “and while we don’t want to scare people, the thing about Brexit is that while the UK government will be doing everything in its power to make the transition easy for businesses, the same cannot be said of foreign powers and border controls. There is lots out of our control.”
Alongside the mammoth task of navigating Covid-19 and helping businesses with their Brexit preparations, over the last period, the BRC has maintained its focus on some of the industry’s most central forward-looking issues: sustainability and diversity.
“The fact that we are still getting lots of engagement on these issues during the pandemic speaks volumes,” Helen said. “These are the topics at the forefront of the conversation for stakeholders and investors, and areas where retailers can have a real impact on society. They’re also issues that need collaboration to drive change – that’s a real sweet spot for us. If businesses can do it for themselves then there’s no room for us.”
Our conversation turns to the future of retail. The past year has accelerated existing trends at an extraordinary rate, bringing forward digital transformation plans and fundamentally changing the way we work and live in our communities. How does Helen see this impacting the retail sector?
“On digital, I think we need to stop differentiating between online and physical retail,” she suggested. “They’re both part of the retail ecosystem, and I think we’ll get to a point where there’s closer alignment between the two, even to a point where you don’t measure it. After all, if someone researches a product online and then goes to a shop to get it, where is that sale? Or if they try it on in the shop and then buy it online? There will certainly be fewer shops – but physical retail won’t disappear. Hopefully we’ll see more diversification in approach across the sector, from entrepreneurial businesses and the big corporates.”
“I think we need to stop differentiating between online and physical retail, they’re both part of the retail ecosystem.”
In discussions with retail executives over the last few months, one of the reoccurring themes has been the resurgence of the local high street. As offices close in city centres and people rethink priorities around work/life balance, local high streets and residential towns are experiencing a new lease of life. Helen echoed this point: “We need a bold reimagined version of local communities, and what they incorporate. Not just retail, but also care in the community, flexible working places, more housing, places for people to connect with each other in a professional and social environment. In order to get there, though, we’ll need to change what it costs to operate in these environments – at the moment it is prohibitive. We need flexibility to create different retail formats, with lower rents and rates”.
As we approach the end of the year, I asked Helen for her key learning from 2020: “The most important thing we have done is listened to what retail needed,” Helen replied. “In those early days, we were on the phone at every waking moment, listening to what retailers needed, writing a list and then ticking them off item by item. That was easier at the beginning, when everyone had a unified set of objectives. Today, it’s our job to keep retail looking in the same direction, and working towards a shared purpose. That’s our priority… but it’s not always easy!”
As we prepare for all shops to re-open in the coming days, all of retail will hopefully have a positive trading period with which to end 2020. Stewarded by Helen and her team at the BRC, I am very confident that the industry will present a strong and united front to address the challenges of 2021 and beyond. We could not be in better hands – which is good, as we’re definitely not out of the woods yet!