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In My View by Eric Musgrave. Retailing: The invisible industry

Eric Musgrave
14 March 2024

Politicians (of all persuasions) have no vision for the retailing sector, a huge industry that they take for granted.

That, sadly, was the uncompromising message from retailing veteran Andy Higginson, chairman of British Retailing Consortium and of JD Sports, speaking at the Retail Week Live conference this week.

I found it impossible to disagree with his analysis as I have been saying the same thing for years. Ironically enough, he was speaking at a hotel just across Westminster Bridge from the Houses of Parliament. His message to the audience of retailers and their suppliers was to get on with their jobs despite the lack of interest from the policy makers and legislators in and around the Palace of Westminster.

An inherent problem for retailing, he argued, was that it was a self-sufficient industry: “We don’t go looking for subsidies, as old industries like steel or cars do, so we are taken for granted.”

Another issue is that the highly competitive nature of the retailing sector means its major players are less inclined to work together in a common cause, notwithstanding the fine efforts made by the BRC in this regard.

JD Sports

JD Sports Liverpool ONE

“In the 30 years I’ve been involved the industry has always been dynamic, especially since the digital revolution started (20 years ago),” he added. “The industry sorts out winners and losers – COVID just accelerated that process.”

Having joined Laura Ashley as finance director in 1990, Higginson has a very long retailing CV, including a stint at The Burton Group before he began a 14-year career at Tesco as part of the team, led by Terry Leahy, that saw the supermarket lift sales for £17 billion to £70bn.

After leaving Tesco in 2012 he chaired businesses as different as N Brown, Poundland and Morrisons before joining JD Sports in July 2022, so he knows what he is talking about.

As well as being a huge generator and collector of taxes for the Exchequer, the overlooked retailing sector is also a huge employer of people across the entire nation, he pointed out. Moreover, shops, stores, warehouses and the rest of the infrastructure gives jobs to folk he delicately described as being “at the lower end of the recruitment spectrum”, that is, people who are unlikely to get a job elsewhere.

He maintained that retailing is “a meritocracy”, at least at its lower levels, with people including women and those from minorities, able to get on early if they showed ability. He admitted, however, that there is more work to be done to continue this at the top.

Regarding some of the pressures legislation imposes on retailers, Higginson remarked that adding wage rises of 9.8% at a time when (price) inflation was only about 2%-3% presented challenges.

In a very impressive turn of phrase, he described the reviled business rates as “a medieval tax”, completely out of date with today’s market.

Asked for advice for retailers, Higginson offered: “Be honest with yourself. And look for the things that other people walk past (and overlook) in your store.”

His pragmatic, down-to-earth analysis of the situation was refreshing, if a little downbeat, but he also had reasons to be optimistic. There was always room, he insisted, for someone new to deliver a retail concept that would delight and attract consumers.

“Relatively speaking, there are low barriers to entry to retailing. Who could have predicted that JD Sports would have grown from having to stores in Bury in 1981 to a turnover of £11bn today?”

And let’s remember that and other retail success stories were achieved without government policies making the task easier.

Who expects retailing to get even a passing mention when the general election juggernaut starts rolling? Not me.

Higginson said the industry should be treated with a little more respect. Here’s hoping…

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