Retail leaders and academics meet to discuss sector’s future

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Professor Leigh Sparks with members of the retail industry
Professor Leigh Sparks, Karen Forret (Managing Director of Wilkies), Colin Temple (Managing Director of Schuh), Dan Brown (President-elect of the Scottish Grocers Federation), and Helen Dickinson (Chief Executive of the British Retail Consortium)

Questions around the greatest challenges and opportunities facing UK retailers have been tackled by leading academics and established industry figures at a University of Stirling event.

‘Armageddon or Reinvention?’ was the inaugural Retail Futures Lecture hosted by Stirling Management School’s Institute for Retail Studies. It was delivered by Helen Dickinson OBE, Chief Executive of the British Retail Consortium (BRC). The BRC represents more than 5,000 businesses delivering £180bn of retail sales and employing more than one and a half million people across the UK.

Helen Dickinson OBE said: “This is undoubtedly a time of evolution for retailers as they face a unique set of circumstances, which present both challenges and opportunities. At the BRC we are committed to supporting our members in navigating those challenges and making the most of possibilities for success, today and in the future.

“The wider economic situation, with inflation outstripping wage growth for much of the last decade, has contributed significantly to retail sales growth being at a historic low in the UK. The impact that has had is clear to see when you consider that in 2019 alone, there were 9,169 store closures and 85,000 job losses in the sector – resulting in more than 10% of high street shops being vacant.

“However, it is important to underline that retail is not dying, it is simply changing. Adapting brings its own challenges and associated costs – the sector invested more than £1.1bn in new technologies during 2018, and increased research and development budgets by more than a quarter (26%) in the same period.

“For retailers making that investment, there is much to be optimistic about and they will be well positioned to capitalise on opportunities. Retail accounts for five percent of the UK economy and it is estimated that, by 2024, retail spending will be £381bn.”

Following Helen Dickinson’s lecture, she was joined on stage by Colin Temple (Managing Director of Schuh), Karen Forret (Managing Director of Wilkies), Gillian Crawford (Founder of Lily Blanche) and Dan Brown (President-elect of the Scottish Grocers Federation) for a panel discussion and questions from the audience.

The discussion was chaired by Professor Leigh Sparks, Deputy Principal (Education and Students) of the University of Stirling and Professor of Retail Studies at Stirling Management School.

Professor Sparks said: “It is always a pleasure to welcome leading industry figures to our campus, particularly when Helen and our panel members were able to provide valuable insight into the ‘perfect storm’ facing retailers across the UK.

“This includes the rise of technology, ever increasing costs, and sluggish consumer demand. However, there are positive counterpoints including the slowing growth of online retailing, increasing differentiation of physical stores, and retails adaptation to ethical, social, and circular consumption.

“Helen 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 sector in terms of jobs and its broadening skills needs; and that retailing supports communities - driving social and environmental change.

“Retailing is being reinvented and reimagined. Operators and governments are grappling with various cost and other challenges. Closer working together could usefully enhance the reshaping of the sector to enhance the service to consumers and improve the sustainability of the sector.”

The University of Stirling’s Institute for Retail Studies is a leading research and education centre. Its research focuses on the impacts of structural and behavioural changes in retailing, including; internationalisation, social implications of retail change on the high street, retail in isolated communities, supply chain relationships, and the evolution of brands.