British Retail Consortium chief executive Helen Dickinson is fighting for a retail sector ravaged by the coronavirus crisis at the highest levels of government.
“There’s never been a more important time for the industry to have a collective voice,” Helen Dickinson, chief executive of retail body the British Retail Consortium (BRC) tells Drapers. “We’ve spent more time talking to the government about the measures that are still needed to support the industry through this crisis in the past few weeks than we did in the whole of the previous year.”
The BRC boss has been working at a relentless pace to protect the interests of the industry since all non-essential stores were forced to close on 23 March as part of the government’s response to coronavirus. When she speaks to Drapers via Zoom late one afternoon in April, she has yet to find time to squeeze in a sandwich in a back-to-back day of video meetings and phone calls.
It has been the feedback from BRC members – which include some of the biggest names on the high street – that has kept her going through long days at her desk.
The BRC describes itself as “the go-to trade association for UK retailers” and has more than 90 members, which represent more than 70% of the UK retail industry by turnover. Marks & Spencer, Next, John Lewis Partnership and Shop Direct Group are all members. Ted Baker, Superdry, Boden and Matalan have joined since the start of 2020.
Having access to the BRC and its excellent people provides a value that cannot be underestimated
Manju Malhotra, Harvey Nichols
In more settled times for the retail industry, the BRC’s job is to inform government decision making, provide members with insight and data and help them interpret new legislative and technical regulations. It also runs a dozen community groups where members can discuss particular issues – ranging from Brexit and buying to addressing the needs of retail CEOs.
For now, Dickinson is focused on calling for clarity from the government about the long-term response to the coronavirus epidemic. She praises its actions, but says the retail industry needs information about what will happen once current measures taper off, and the BRC is in discussions with the government about further projects, including a programme to cover retailers’ rents
As the pandemic has damaged trade for businesses across retail, communicating with the government about how the sector can survive has become even more important to the BRC. The trained accountant says she has conference calls almost every other day with senior government officials.
The wider BRC team, comprising 50 people based in London Bridge, is in “regular conversation” with Westminster. The BRC has also been helping members navigate the new support available, such as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.
These efforts have not gone unnoticed by the industry.
“Given the current challenges retail is facing, membership of the BRC provides valuable insight and detailed practical guidance, as well as lobbying on behalf of the sector and a collective voice,” says Manju Malhotra, chief operating officer of BRC member Harvey Nichols.
“The scale of this crisis is unrecognisable to us all. Having access to the BRC and its excellent people provides a value that is strategic, current, and cannot be underestimated.”
Colin Culleton, group loss prevention manager at Next, agrees: “Working with the BRC gives me a platform to come together with other industry figures, influence government and assist colleagues and to resolve some of our most challenging problems.”
Calling for support
Dickinson believes the government is receptive to what the retail industry needs to weather the crisis, but stresses the sector still needs further support: “I feel for the government – it is doing a tremendous job. It is dealing with all aspects of the pandemic as a health crisis, as well as the huge impact on businesses.
“Almost all sectors, whether it is retail, manufacturing, travel, or hospitality, have been hit in different ways. I do feel that it is listening to what is important to retail. Our industry, along with travel and hospitality, has been most significantly affected.”
The government may be listening, but there are still plenty of areas where retailers need it to provide help, guidance and clarity. Access to loans, the future of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme – or furlough programme – and how to get back to something like business as usual are top of the industry’s list of concerns.
“How long it will take to access the finance available [such as the Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme, which will enable all viable businesses with a turnover of more than £45m to apply for government-backed support of up to £25m] is a big worry for retailers,” Dickinson explains.
She says the government has to be flexible and adjust its approach as events demand. The furlough scheme has now been extended until the end of September, but “demand will not pick up as soon as restrictions are lifted”, and the government has yet to outline what contributions it will start to ask from employers in August. (Read: Industry ‘cannot afford’ to contribute to furlough scheme)
Many retailers are measuring their lifespan in weeks, not years, and urgent further support is needed
Helen Dickinson, BRC
The increasingly thorny issue of retail rents is another hot topic for the BRC. New government measures introduced in April temporarily banned the use of aggressive rent collecting tactics such as statutory demands and winding-up orders from landlords.
However, property experts have told Drapers that landlords are still taking a hardline approach to pursing unpaid rents on closed stores. Shopping centre owner Intu Properties has warned that it is prepared to take “robust action” to enforce legally binding lease terms.
Dickinson says the BRC is “talking to the government about something called a Furloughed Space Grant Scheme”, which builds on the approach taken in Denmark and some other European countries. The government pays a proportion of a commercial tenant’s rent, relative to the amount by which turnover falls during the lockdown period.
If a retailer suffered a 40%-60% drop in turnover, the government would meet 25% of rent and other fixed costs. This rises to 100% where turnover has fallen by 100%. It would apply to a limited number of sectors, including retail, for the duration of the lockdown period.
Dickinson adds: “Many retailers and landlords have negotiated to defer rents or spread costs over a longer period, or to move from quarterly to monthly rents.
“However, these measures will not be sufficient to stave off the prospect of otherwise viable businesses going into administration, with all the consequent loss of jobs, economic activity, and rental income. Many retailers are measuring their lifespan in weeks, not years, and urgent further support is needed.”
Like the rest of the retail industry, Dickinson’s thoughts are now turning to life after lockdown. Boris Johnson may have laid out an initial “roadmap” for lifting restrictions that could include reopening shops from 1 June, but industry bodies, including the BRC, have stressed that further clarity is needed.
The BRC has argued that a safety and risk-based approach – rather than a phased strategy under which smaller stores would open first – should be the basis for reopening decisions. It has created guidance in partnership with trade union Usdaw to support stores when they reopen, including advice on hygiene and social-distancing measures.
Read the BRC and Usdaw’s full guidance on store reopenings here.
Published in late April, the guidance outlines measures such as single entry and exit points to stores, physical barriers at till points and sanitisation stations.
In an open letter to the government written earlier this month, Dickinson wrote: “I read with alarm that in the first phase of lifting lockdown restrictions the government is to prioritise small shops for reopening. This approach provides the least economic benefit and poses the greatest risk to health. It is the worst of both worlds.
“Safety should be the only basis for making decisions on reopening; size of shop should not come into it. Retailers have made detailed plans, based on BRC-Usdaw guidance and the hard-won experience of retailers operating during lockdown. They will make a risk assessment: if it is safe, they will open and get people back to work; if it isn’t, they will not.
“The government should focus on a plan that joins the dots between schools, public transport, shops and places. Favouring one part of the retail industry over another will cause confusion and may undermine public safety.”
“We need really clear messaging from the government around reopening.”
Helen Dickinson, BRC
She stresses that retailers need plenty of warning and clear communication around any reopening messaging from the government: “We need notice. Retailers don’t want to hear about changes that are happening tomorrow. They need a couple of weeks’ notice to plan properly and to be successful in transitioning to the next phase.
“We also need really clear messaging from government. If we think back to 23 March [when the government imposed the lockdown] and the days that followed, there was a lot of confusion about online retail being open, and employees being asked to go to work [in warehouses and distribution centres] when the government’s advice was to stay at home. It took a number of weeks to really clarify what was or wasn’t allowed, so let’s learn lessons from what happened there.”
Lifting lockdown is not going to be a panacea for the retail industry. The sector will still have to contend with reduced footfall and a shrinking economy that could tip the UK into the worst recession for 300 years, figures released earlier this month from the Bank of England suggest.
However, despite the challenges ahead, Dickinson argues that retail is resilient: “It will be tough. Members of the public will be cautious and nervous about any sort of activity that involves getting close to other people. The economy is being hit and that has knock-on consequences for consumers’ disposal income and how much spending capacity people have.”
She believes that implementing social distancing for employees will create difficulties, and retails shift online will be accelerated, which will result in more bricks-and-mortar store closures. Some businesses may not be able to navigate all of those changes.
“But to counter that, retailers are a pretty resilient bunch. They are innovative, they are problem solvers and if they can find a way through, they will. Businesses are doing things in six weeks that might have previously taken them 18 months to do.
“I have no doubt many businesses will emerge from this strong and leaner – they just need clear communication, collaboration and support from government to get to that point.”
Helen Dickinson’s retail career
2016 Awarded an OBE for services to retail
2012 Chief executive, British Retail Consortium
2004 Head of retail, KPMG
1989 Partner, KPMG
1989 Kingston University, BA in accounting and finance
Why Helen Dickinson loves retail
“Retail is part of the fabric of this country. What really inspires me about this industry is how passionate the people who work in it are. We have a great retail industry in this country and a fantastic fashion industry: we should be really proud of it.
“The industry has actually come through the pandemic with an enhanced reputation thanks to those on the frontline working in shops or fulfilling demand online.
“There’s also the huge support individual businesses have given to charities. Those in the industry have always known that retail is great, but now so does everybody else.”