A helping hand for retail could benefit many other industries and aspects of public life, argues Lush head of UK and Ireland retail Kasey Swithenbank

Retail Week Election 2024 logo

I’m under no illusion that there seems to be a never-ending to-do list for the next government and, alongside it, the all-important question of ‘how do we pay for it?’

But a helping hand for retail could benefit many sectors and aspects of public life.

The industry is the biggest employer in the UK and Ireland and more could be done to not only support businesses but also those who keep them running.

When so many sit at home looking at a screen, I can’t understand why the next government wouldn’t want to encourage more of us to get out and about, supporting businesses and the wider economy while we go.

Specifically, if it looked at improving public transport, curating a diverse mix of retailers and simplifying the apprenticeship levy scheme, while also improving the support available for retail workers, this could make a huge difference to businesses in our towns and cities.

“Many high streets are struggling with a monotonous retail landscape and sadly units are sitting empty”

Public transport is relied on heavily by high streets and shopping centres. Reliable and efficient systems enable customers to have easy access to retail areas that would boost footfall and sales – both of which are positives for the wider economy.

But many areas suffer from unreliable and inadequate transport links, deterring potential shoppers and limiting accessibility. The government can play a crucial role by investing in public transport infrastructure. That means not only enhancing existing services but also extending routes to underserved areas.

Increased frequency and reliability of buses, trams and trains could transform the retail industry, making it easier for people to visit and shop. Moreover, introducing subsidised fares during peak shopping seasons or weekends could further encourage shoppers to leave their cars at home, which is not only great for businesses, but I’m sure the next government will also have a net zero target to achieve too – it’s a win-win. A better transport network also supports employees, ensuring that those who work in retail can commute easily and affordably.

Help the high street

The character of high streets is defined by the diversity of retailers. We need a mix of shops, from independents to well-known brands, to attract a wider range of customers and enhance their shopping experience.

However, many high streets are struggling with a monotonous retail landscape, dominated by a few large chains and sadly, many units are sitting empty. Government intervention is needed to encourage a diverse retail mix.

That can be achieved through policies that support small and independent businesses, such as offering grants or tax incentives to new entrepreneurs. Additionally, councils could take a more active role in planning and curating retail spaces, ensuring a balanced mix of shops, food and beverage, and leisure and entertainment centres that cater to various demographics and preferences.

I’m excited by the proposals in Cardiff city centre where developers are proposing to use the previous Debenhams unit to introduce a new space for the local community that would mean new green spaces bringing nature into the city centre, new safe play spaces for families and spaces for events in among thriving retail. These sorts of initiatives are what more city centres need and I think the government could do more to encourage local councils to introduce such concepts.

Put people first

For the retail sector to thrive we need a diverse, skilled and motivated workforce committed to serving customers. The apprenticeship levy scheme was introduced to encourage businesses to invest in training but it’s complex so I don’t believe it’s being used to its fullest.

Simplifying the apprenticeship levy and introducing a simple streamlined application process would make it easier for businesses to access funds and use them effectively. Clearer guidelines and more flexible use of levy funds can encourage retailers to invest in a wider range of training, from customer service excellence to digital skills development.

Expanding the scope of apprenticeships to include higher-level qualifications and management training can help retailers build a pipeline of talent. Retail is an incredible industry to work in. By making the apprenticeship levy scheme more accessible and user-friendly, the government can support retail in bringing in and developing a skilled workforce that meets the demands of an ever-changing sector.

More could also be done to support the people who keep retail going. As we look to the future, it’s imperative that the government steps in to create a more supportive and inclusive environment for retail workers, from better mental health services to more inclusive parental leave policies.

Mental health is the biggest contributor to long-term absence, which not only affects the individual but disrupts business and increases employers’ costs. The government could play a pivotal role by providing better mental health services. Our current system isn’t set up to support the individuals or provide services when they need them.

“Working parents have the skills businesses should be craving. The next government should look to enhance parental leave policies”

Parental leave policies are crucial in supporting working parents but many retail workers face inadequate leave options that force them to choose between their job and their family. Better parental leave support can alleviate this burden and encourage more parents to remain in or return to the retail workforce.

I’m speaking from experience when I say working parents have the skills businesses should be craving. The next government should look to enhance parental leave policies, ensuring that all workers have access to adequate paid leave.

This includes extending the duration of paid parental leave. We’re fortunate at Lush that our UK and Ireland staff have access to six months of full pay to allow them to welcome their new addition into their family without financial worry.

Other retail workers are not as lucky and many return to work after a short period because the policies in place are not accessible to all or adequate due to cost-of-living pressures. While I welcome the current government’s childcare plans, the next is going to have its work cut out to ensure sufficient places nationwide to support working parents further.