The Covid19 addled 2020 is behind us in calendar terms, though we are continuing to live through the lockdowns, and all their implications, at the start of what in normal times might be a brand new shiny year. In a previous post I looked back at what had attracted an audience to the blog in 2020. In this piece I want to give some more broad reflections and look forward to what it might (or should) mean in 2021.
Retailing in 2020 was upended, with much of it classified as non-essential and subject to closure, lockdowns, re-openings and re-lockdowns. Retailers (and suppliers and producers) hardly knew where to turn. Unless of course you were a food retailer, especially a local, convenience type retailer, and/or could move online. Many of these also had a successful Christmas period. Online and local have been the winners of the year in retailer terms (though there are some other large retailers in selected sectors e.g. Halfords. Pets at Home and there seems to be a burgeoning set of independent store openings).
The losers have obviously been the stores that have not been able to open that much in 2020, those that closed and those still likely yet to close, but especially the workers they employed. A key theme has been acceleration and especially of pre-existing retail trends, but that masks the human cost of rapid transition.
Overall though, retailing has had a positive year in the sense that the sector has delivered and served most customers with products and supply they needed. A few episodes of panic-buying were smoothed over and online slots massively expanded. But, use of food banks hit record levels, volunteers were needed to feed parts of the country and deprivation and inequalities grew. As CACI put it (I paraphrase) – in the past the wealthy used their wealth to travel, in the pandemic they used it to stay cocooned at home. Others were nowhere near so fortunate.
So, what should we have learned? Our system is not sustainable from a human nor a climate concern angle. Our retail key workers (as others) need to have a proper wage and conditions; but our local independent businesses need also to be able to make money. We need more local, resilient supply chains and to focus on serving the population more equitably and fairly. How can we justify our system when the ‘safety net’ of food banks, emergency parcels and so on has been normalised and where the ownership and use of a car is the essential requirement to go shopping in many cases?
When we were locked down we leant on the local, the community – and yes online. So we need to build these local networks and ensure physical and economic access to what has become a lifeline, expected service. Retailers did in many cases step up, but we need this to be the norm. Hopefully in 2021 we will not forget those that did the right thing and actively shun those that sought to exploit the situation or to hide behind legalese of doing only what is demanded by the exact letter of the law. How about doing the right thing by society as the price for doing business?
These are big asks for 2021 and I am pretty certain they will not be delivered. Wholesale system change to benefit vulnerable people seems to be beyond the imagination of the UK Government. But this is not going away. In 2019 we were still seeing the adverse impacts of the financial crash from a decade previous. We can not afford another lost decade for swathes of society. I suspect 2021 is about getting used to the idea things will never be the same again (generally and in retailing) as we learn to live with Covid19 (and prepare for the next virus). But in the years from now as we do that, we need to ensure change is for the better, and for the population as a whole; that we support what we value and stop enabling businesses and activities that damage our collective whole; and that wellbeing and fairness drives so much more of our decision-making and government spending.
Some retailers are moving that way already; as are some towns and urban centres. We need to help them and support them and fight the siren calls of returning to how we were. The system was not working; we have to use 2021 to begin to build back fairer, healthier and better for all. Anything else trashes the memories of those we lost in 2020 – and continue to lose.
Over the next few weeks I will start to look at what that might mean as the reports for the Scottish Government from the Social Renewal Advisory Board and the Town Centre Action Plan Review are published. And probably revisit the impact of Brexit (though the UK Government can not say they weren’t warned).