On the 3rd March, the University of Stirling, the Stirling Management School and the Institute for Retail Studies were very pleased to host the Chief Executive of the British Retail Consortium, Helen Dickinson, OBE. In front of an audience of retailers, students/staff and government and other policy makers, Helen explored the future landscape of retailing and the hot question of whether retail is facing armageddon or reinvention?
Following her speech and presentation my role was to act as facilitator of a discussion session involving Helen, a panel of retailers and the audience. The panel comprised Dan Brown (the MD of Lothian Stores and President-Elect of the Scottish Grocers Federation), Gillian Crawford (founder of Lily Blanche and Tartan Twist), Karen Forret (MD of Wilkies) and Colin Temple (MD of Schuh). In Karen and Dan’s cases it was a return to their old studying grounds, both being graduates of the Marketing and Retail division of the University.
Helen’s presentation set the scene for the discussion. She began with the ‘perfect storm’ hitting retailing, encapsulated in her view as the rise of technology (internet), ever increasing costs and sluggish consumer demand. This ‘dark side’ was then counterpointed by the growth (though slowing) of online retailing, the increasing differentiation of physical stores and the retail adaptation to ethical, social and circular consumption.
She concluded with three reasons to believe in the future of retailing:
- The sector’s strong and important economic contribution and innovation;
- The scale of the retail sector in terms of jobs/careers and the changing/broadening skills needs;
- That retailing supports communities, driving social and environmental change.
For Helen and the BRC, the fly in the ointment for the future was the need for governments to sort out their view of, and their support for retailing. This was framed as focusing and clarifying policy on sustainability, crime, rates, apprenticeships and Brexit.
The presentation gave the audience plenty of cues for discussion and the panel and the audience ranged widely over various topics for the next hour. Key themes included the development of the circular economy, the need to develop e-commerce more strongly and the types of skills University graduates need to get jobs in retailing. We never got to some issues (including Brexit and COVID-19) and my attempts to replace some rates by a digital tax were rebuffed by the Panel. That is perhaps one for another day.
Retailing is changing, it often has. We are over-stored and there is a change in structure and scope. But, the media narrative of ‘death’ is well off the mark and the Panel were clear about it being Reinvention not Armageddon. The examples they used to describe innovation and reinvention demonstrated the dynamism and growth in parts of the sector. Many good things are going on and need to be showcased not hidden. There are reasons to be cheerful during this reinvention.