Retail is stronger together in war on coronavirus

Helen Dickinson

Coronavirus has triggered the biggest retail crisis of our lifetime and the impact of this pandemic on businesses continues to be enormous.

Our high streets are full of retailers who have been forced to completely shut down or restrict themselves to online only. Some brands are on the brink of collapse, with hundreds of thousands of jobs at risk – from shopfloor staff and marketing departments to farmers and factory workers further down the supply chain. Even for those who continue to trade, the situation remains difficult. As purse strings tighten and shopping trips diminish, many of these retailers face falling sales and additional costs, such as PPE, rising import costs and the recruitment and training of tens of thousands of new staff.

There are many challenges ahead and the British Retail Consortium (BRC) has been working with government to secure various mitigations to help retailers bear some of the brunt of coronavirus.

“Retailers face falling sales and additional costs, such as PPE, rising import costs and the recruitment and training of tens of thousands of new staff”

Just last week, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme was extended until the end of June and the Treasury confirmed a significant extension of the Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CLBILS), which didn’t exist at all just a few weeks before that. The latter means firms with higher turnovers are now eligible to apply for the scheme – with larger loans available than before.

Furthermore, we were influential in securing the business rates holiday for all retail businesses – a vital lifeline for many in these difficult times.

In Retail Week’s ‘The Big Question’, I argued against the point made in some quarters that grocers should not receive the business rates relief announced by government – all retailers are seeing a significant impact on their business.

How retailers treat their workers during this pandemic will define their brand for decades to come – join with RWRC, retailTRUST and the BRC to provide much-needed aid and assistance to the industry.

Extreme times have called for extreme measures – from the retail and hospitality grants, the relaxation of delivery hours and competition law, to the deferrals of VAT, Custom Duties and Import VAT, to the removal of the plastic bag levy and the increase of the contactless payment limit to £45.

Coronavirus has been a lesson in businesses coming together to send a clear message to government, and I am pleased that the BRC has played its part in making these things happen.

“The real heroes are the countless colleagues who travel to work day after day to ensure we all have essential goods on our shelves and delivered to our homes”

And we continue to look forward. Our guidance on social distancing in warehouses is helping many retailers to run their online services safely, and we are working on similar guidance to help physical retailers reopen safely in the future.

But the real heroes are the countless colleagues who travel to work day after day to ensure we all have essential goods on our shelves and delivered to our homes.

The retail industry’s efforts have not gone unnoticed: secretary of state Alok Sharma personally thanked all in the industry in an open letter, for instance.

But while there are many small successes, we are not out of the woods yet. We cannot rest on our laurels as this pandemic continues to sweep the globe.

The comments made in a recent column from The Secret Retailer reflect many of the conversations that I have with retail CEOs. Yes, we welcome the government’s new flexibility regarding loan schemes, but it must ensure that retailers can easily access this cash, and fast. Many are down to weeks or just a few months of cash reserves.

It is essential the new Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme portal can deliver funds quickly to retailers. Furthermore, retailers need the government loan guarantee for the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme and the CLBILS to cover 100% of loans, rather than just 80%.

“While the pandemic has shaken all of us, it has also fostered empathy, generosity and collaboration”

So, what’s next? We are working on the phased reopening of retail businesses and looking ahead to a recovery strategy and what this might entail. We must continue to work with the government to formulate a concrete plan to restore what has been lost.

Rest assured, we are still focused on the immediate challenges and are working with banks to make access to loans easier and fighting for retailer rental support through a proposed Furloughed Space Grant Scheme.

While the pandemic has shaken all of us, it has also fostered empathy, generosity and collaboration. I am so proud of how retail has come together and adapted to the circumstances.

We are glad to have been able to help so many of our retail businesses and provide some support and relief, and we applaud the government’s actions to date.

Nonetheless, millions of jobs rely on the government’s continued support – businesses need faster access to cash and rent relief, and we need a plan for regrowth once the globe has conquered this pathogen.

We are stronger working together to try to navigate through this crisis. Thank you to the retail industry.

, Chief executive of the British Retail Consortium

This article was originally published on Retail Week

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