Matt Vickers is the MP for Stockton South.
The debate around the challenges facing the retail sector, and particularly our high streets, isn’t new. Sadly, the current pandemic has only exacerbated the situation. As a former Woolworth’s employee and a keen Pic and Mix eater, I know only too well the high street titans who have been lost in this battle.
While the pandemic has left many industries in a state of flux, it has added to the challenges facing the retail sector rather than acting as the sole source of disruption.
Although we cannot deny that lockdown restrictions in the earlier part of the year were necessary to protect the health of the nation, they have had a devastating effect on the already dwindling footfall that many high streets and retail centres have experienced over recent years.
With people being asked to stay at home, more and more of them have turned to online traders to meet their needs. Complacency has meant that we have learned to live with online and physical retailers living in parallel. While we have known for some time, that online shopping has exercised a greater dominance, Covid-19, it feels, is giving online retailers full superiority.
From the incredible bum-wiping bonanza of 2020 that saw people stocks piling toilet rolls (which they probably still haven’t got through) to the huge demand for hand sanitiser, retail and supply chains were put to the test.
While recent figures from the British Retail Consortium show retail sales to September rebounded since re-opening in June, they remain significantly lower than sales at the beginning of the pandemic.
More worryingly, these figures indicate potentially permanent changes in consumer behaviour, since working from home has been normalised for many, and online sales continuing to boom despite shops being open. City centre retailers in particular have not benefited from increased footfall, as office blocks stand empty.
In less than six months, we have seen an industry worth nearly £400 billion, that directly employs three million people, encounter a seismic shift; the result of which could be hundreds of thousands of livelihoods destroyed.
While we have painted a bleak, yet sadly accurate picture of the retail sector, there are potential solutions to reverse the decline. If we want to see our high streets flourish once again, where our memories no longer drift back to a bygone era of nostalgia of what we have lost, we must be embrace bold, innovative and forward-looking policies.
The Government must cut the burdens that restrict business, and allow the entrepreneurial spirit to blow the wind of change through our high streets.
Our retail workers have been on the frontline in this pandemic, whilst others sought safety in their own home. They alongside our doctors, nurses and health professionals, are the key workers in this battle. And while they battle to supply us with the goods we require, it is sad to see that in recent times an alarming trend has emerged with the number shop workers being abused and assaulted increasing.
A recent British Consortium survey found that more than 400 retail workers face violence and abuse every day, often as the result of staff challenging shoplifters, or more recently trying to implement Covid-19 guidelines.
Locally, in my constituency of Stockton South, I have spent a great deal of time meeting retailers, and even worked a shift in a local Home Bargains (another past employer of mine). I have been delighted to hear how so many of them have benefited from the various support packages since this crisis began, whether that in question has been the business rates holiday or the world-leading furlough scheme.
There is that old adage, ‘the customer is always right’. But while that may be the case, there could be no customers without the staff that work so hard to keep our retail sector going. It really is an industry for the people and run by the people. It is our duty as policymakers to cultivate a supportive environment to ensure the industry has a thriving future.
An integral way in which we do this in the months ahead will be the biggest consultation on the issue that affects the industry most – a fundamental review of business rates and then publishing the terms of reference for the review at the Spring Budget. This call for evidence seeks views on how the business rates system currently works, what issues need to be addressed, ideas for change and a number of alternative taxes.
When the evidence and recommendations come in, we must listen, and we must do all we can to support the heart of the British economy. So have your say today.