Interview: British Retail Consortium boss Helen Dickinson on the outlook for the bellwether sector

“Retailers have great connections with consumers,” says British Retail Consortium (BRC) chief executive Helen Dickinson during a visit to Edinburgh, stressing the need for further government support of the sector that has a key role in buttressing the economy.
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The UK, famously described as a nation of shopkeepers, is credited by the trade as being responsible for more than three million jobs, and the number is 258,000 in Scotland according to regional BRC arm the Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC).

Speaking to The Scotsman, Dickinson says the shopping industry reaches “everybody in the country pretty much every day or at least every week”. Retailers “are the largest employers in the country outside the public sector, and therefore if you really want to drive the net zero agenda, talent, inclusion, people, skills, the industry's got to be the route to being able to do that”.

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The sector from Land's End to John O’Groats finds itself attempting to deflect a flurry of hurdles in recent years – including Covid, the war in Ukraine, and the cost-of-living crisis. And high streets are now haunted by the ghosts of many previously high-profile names that failed to last the distance, including recent casualty Wilko that had more than 400 branches across the UK.

'There's a little bit more of the volatile environment to come before we see the sunny uplands of glorious, sustained growth,' says the BRC boss. Picture: contributed.'There's a little bit more of the volatile environment to come before we see the sunny uplands of glorious, sustained growth,' says the BRC boss. Picture: contributed.
'There's a little bit more of the volatile environment to come before we see the sunny uplands of glorious, sustained growth,' says the BRC boss. Picture: contributed.

Dickinson, who was awarded an OBE for services to retail in 2016, last month wrote to Chancellor Jeremy Hunt to lay out the trade body’s wishes for the forthcoming Autumn Statement that is scheduled for November 22. “Retail is a vital part of the socioeconomic fabric of the UK… with a presence in every community,” she wrote. "Whilst [it] may not be one of the [UK] government’s targeted ‘growth sectors’, the industry’s scale means that a policy, regulatory and tax landscape which encourages incremental growth in innovation and productivity will help shift the dial for the wider UK economy.”

Among the recommendations was a call for reinstating tax-free shopping for international visitors including EU citizens to “encourage international visitor spend and restore the UK’s competitive advantage against European countries”. And Dickinson says Scotland would benefit given tourist visits to locations including Edinburgh, Glasgow, and the Highlands, for example. Hotelier Sir Rocco Forte recently bemoaned the loss of the initiative, and said British businesses used to make £3.5 billion in tax-free sales to tourists every year.

The BRC has also been working to tackle a growing problem for retailers – crime, including shoplifting (where Scotland has seen a 25 per cent year-on-year jump) and attacks on shop staff. Dickinson says it is the top issue shop bosses are raising with her currently, and “has been bubbling up and increasing in volume over the course of the last six months”.

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The businesswoman, who has held her role for more than a decade and was previously UK head of retail at KPMG, recently wrote to the Home Secretary Suella Braverman on behalf of about 90 retailers to urge action to address the problem. The letter said that for one major business, “the police's own data shows that they failed to respond to 73 per cent of serious retail crimes that were reported”.

The BRC this week revealed that shop price annual inflation decelerated further to 6.2 per cent in September from 6.9 per cent in August. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.The BRC this week revealed that shop price annual inflation decelerated further to 6.2 per cent in September from 6.9 per cent in August. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.
The BRC this week revealed that shop price annual inflation decelerated further to 6.2 per cent in September from 6.9 per cent in August. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.

The BRC earlier this year in its annual Crime Survey findings said the total cost of retail crime, including prevention, stood at £1.76bn in 2021/22, while Dickinson cites the “hideous” statistic that before Covid, the number of incidents of violence and abuse against retail staff across the UK was about 450. “Now it's about 850.” The trade body also in the letter called on the UK government to introduce a standalone offence for assaulting or abusing a retail worker, “as exists in Scotland”.

Among the document’s signatories are Brian Duffy, the Glaswegian boss of Watches of Switzerland; David Robinson, CEO of Dobbies Garden Centres Group that is headquartered at Lasswade just outside Edinburgh; and John Brodie, the boss of Scotmid.

Brodie last week announced that he was retiring next year, while he is also stepping down as chair of the SRC in the spring of 2024. SRC director David Lonsdale said: “John Brodie MBE is a towering figure in Scottish retail. He has made an enormous contribution to the industry and to the [SRC].” The SRC has now today announced that Debbie Harding, chief people and corporate officer at Dobbies, will be its next chair.

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Looking ahead to retail’s key festive period, Dickinson says the usual “million dollar” question in October of how it will play out has been “so difficult” this year, with poor comparators in recent years, and set against a mixed lay of the retail land currently. On the positive side, she says retail sales are holding up overall in pound terms, while the BRC this week revealed that shop price annual inflation decelerated further to 6.2 per cent in September from 6.9 per cent in August.

Dickinson said alongside the latter that the figure was expected to continue falling over the rest of the year. "However there are still many risks to this trend – high interest rates, climbing oil prices, global shortages of sugar, as well as the supply-chain disruption from the war in Ukraine.”

And the SRC last month said total sales by value fell by 1.3 per cent year on year in August, after a hoped for back-to-school bounce failed to materialise. Lonsdale said: “Policy-makers should be wary about adding any further pressure onto household finances over the months ahead.” The SRC has outlined its 21 recommendations for the 2024-25 Scottish Budget set to be revealed in December; they include bolstering consumer spending power by ruling out increases in income tax for less affluent workers.

Dickinson is optimistic taking a long view ahead for the sector, saying “there's a little bit more of the volatile environment to come before we see the sunny uplands of glorious, sustained growth”, and sees that “more retailers are just making sure that they're looking carefully at efficiency – so they can weather whatever might come”.