It is conference season for retail once again. Revo, Completely Retail and MAPIC, amongst others, fall in quick succession across September, October and November. Each is a chance for the industry to confer, exchange ideas, reflect and, crucially, do deals – all before all focus shifts to ‘Golden Quarter’ Christmas trading.
At Revo in Liverpool I found positivity and scepticism in equal measure as retail continues in a holding pattern - waiting patiently for the economic mood music to change to something more conducive. It is clear that against continuing downbeat media stories the innovators and thought-leaders in retail are seeking to pave the way for a more prosperous future. Mixing up retail developments to include leisure, office and even residential elements is in the planning. Repurposing excess retail property to bring life and footfall to boost remaining retail will become a common theme – and is certainly much discussed in conference. The ideas and visions are here. Now we need to see implementation and successes to prove the concept.
As I head to MAPIC in November one thought was that the post-Brexit agenda might finally be heard. That will need to wait. The shape of retail in 2020 however, is a discussion that cannot. In Scotland’s major cities there will certainly be fresh retail and leisure destinations at St Enoch Glasgow and St James Edinburgh – but will these be at the vanguard of a new era?
At Burness Paull we recently co-hosted a retail sector lunch with Scottish Retail Consortium. The event was attended by Scottish Finance Secretary Derek Mackay, and so the discussion was very much focused on policy issues impacting on retail businesses. With an impressive array of Scottish-based retailers in the room we had a fascinating insight into the issues that are front and centre priorities for traders on our high streets.
The list of issues will not be a major surprise. But the uniformity of responses certainly poses questions for those empowered to provide assistance to the sector.
Rates, town centre parking, deposit return scheme, the pressure of the living wage and general cost of ‘doing business’ were mentioned time and again. The broader narrative though is one of a huge desire to see local retail that is successful and sustainable. To achieve a position where the hurdles to loyal customers reaching the retail business they have used for years are removed. It was refreshing to hear first-hand from compassionate, authentic and customer-focused businesses who are frustrated by the challenges faced every day.
The retailers I spoke to were not blindly focused on selling product. They were passionate about providing a service to their local communities, providing rewarding careers for their people and aspirational in terms of tackling climate change. All of that can only be achieved at a cost though, and the feeling is there is too much pressure on money going out at a time when there is too little coming in. Put a break on escalating regulation of a sector in transition seemed to be the strongest message.
My own reflection is that a heavy burden rests on what have become the increasingly narrow shoulders of retail. A hope for 2020 might be to see increasing prosperity across the sector assist retail in delivering on all of the roles our communities expect of it (from jobs, training, vital services, finance for local authorities and innovation). What happens to retail has an impact for all of our communities, so it will be interesting to keep ‘listening in’ to what retail is talking about.