For many retailers, 2018 might be a year to forget. But despite torrid conditions, the industry has lots to celebrate as Christmas trading peaks and a new year beckons.

An industry fit for the future

This was the year in which established retailers took the initiative on the technology transforming life and the industry, as they struck partnerships with leading digital businesses and bolstered their own capabilities.

Marks & Spencer epitomised the trend. The retailer forged a partnership with Microsoft to integrate AI technology into customer experience, stores and wider operations. M&S also launched retail’s first data academy, in which 1,000 colleagues are participating.

It is reflective of retail’s efforts to shift to a ‘digital-first’ position. The initiative – and similar programmes in place at other retailers – should help put businesses on the front foot as the industry and consumer landscape shifts.

Repurposing shops

Important and growing as online retail is, shops still account for the lion’s share of sales and play a pivotal role in the multichannel environment.

In 2018, retailers have repurposed shops to make the most both of their traditional strengths and new opportunities.

Next, for instance, grabbed attention through in-store changes such as those evident in its Oxford Street branch.

There, Next has installed shop-in-shops from retailers such as Paperchase, Hema and Costa Coffee, and there is a branded shoe wall from Clarks.

“While some well-known names are finding life tough, retail continues to attract entrepreneurs who are establishing newer businesses”

If it sounds like a department store, that’s how many have viewed it, providing reassurance that the department store model, while changing, is not dead yet.

And department store group John Lewis unveiled a host of innovations at its Westfield White City store, which managing director Paula Nickolds described not just as a store but “a place to shop, do and learn”.

She said: “It’s also a place where we can build a far more personal relationship with our customers.” The store, and others such as Debenhams’ new Watford branch, show that retailers can successfully create experiences which are valued by consumers, rather than relying on the more straightforwardly transactional approach of old.

New companies emerging

While some well-known names are finding life tough, retail continues to attract entrepreneurs who are establishing newer businesses.

Hush, for instance, has just reported full-year revenue up 74% to £29.8m and operating profit ahead 162% to £5.4m.

The womenswear specialist, founded in 2003, mainly sells online but has moved into bricks and mortar with concessions in John Lewis – there are now 33 – and it runs pop-up events.

It’s just one example of an up-and-coming retailer.

Good citizens

Difficult trading conditions have not stopped retailers from being good neighbours in the localities they serve or contributing to society more widely.

From individual branches to corporate level, retailers have raised money and donated time through volunteering.

Last month, many retailers took part in Purple Tuesday, an initiative to promote accessible shopping.

Big retailers such as Asda, Argos, M&S and Sainsbury’s, as well as the wider retail industry including property groups Hammerson and Landsec, all backed the venture.

As well as showing retail’s community-spirited nature, the venture makes commercial sense – the ‘purple pound’ is worth £249bn to the UK economy.

High Street hopes

The health of town centres has been a talking point for retailers and in communities for years as many high streets have become gap-toothed as shops shut.

Retailers have not won their business rates campaign, but the issue is to be considered anew by the Commons Treasury committee in the new year. That raises hopes that, at last, retail’s voice will be listened to on rates.

Sir John Timpson has just published his high street review, designed to provide good, practical measures that can help town centres reinvent themselves.

The sum of £675m has been dedicated to a Future High Streets Fund, which will enable good ideas to be put into practice. Many retailers have, over many years, been involved in initiatives to maintain, restore or build the appeal of town centres. Now they have new thinking and new money to draw upon.

Cutting back on plastic

If one issue has dominated popular concern over the last year, it has been the problem of plastic waste.

The urgency of the problem was emphasised by Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II programme and retailers have acted speedily in response.

“Retailers typically pay tribute to the difference their staff make and many reward them with more than a  pay cheque”

Iceland, spearheaded by managing director Richard Walker – the son of founder Sir Malcolm – has been one of the trailblazers on a variety of environmental and sustainability issues this year, including plastic.

The retailer is to entirely remove plastic packaging from its own label range by 2023. The introduction of paper-based trays for Iceland’s Mumbai Street Co and Mexicana street food ranges has already saved 850 tonnes of non-recyclable black plastic so far.

Other retailers, such as Morrisons and Tesco are among those also taking action. Tesco will have banned all non-recyclable plastic by next year.

A stake in the future

Retailers typically pay tribute to the difference their staff make and many reward them with more than a monthly pay cheque.

The latest to give employees a stake in future success is Dixons Carphone, as it embarks on new boss Alex Baldock’s turnaround programme.

Staff are being awarded at least £1,000 of shares each. Baldock said: “We want to energise all our colleagues and align everyone into truly one business and make all our colleagues think and behave as owners.”

He told Retail Week the reaction internally has been “off the chart” and is confident that the share awards will be mirrored in commitment from staff who, he says, will ultimately make the difference.

“Happy colleagues make for happy customers make for happy shareholders in the long run,” he said.

Enhancing quality of life

At Christmas, more than any time of the year, the difference that retailers make to people’s enjoyment of life comes into its own.

Retailers have democratised products that were once the exclusive preserve of the better off, and their brilliant supply chains have ensured excellent availability.

Over the weekend, Sainsbury’s expects to have sold more than 1.8 million packs of mince pies, or 21 pies per second. It should also have been the grocer’s biggest day for sparkling wine sales –400,000 bottles in total. Fizz is now a fixture on the table of almost anybody who wants it, and no longer only enjoyed by a few.

JS, and other retailers whether grocers or general merchandise groups, will have made a lot of people’s Christmases very happy. For that alone, the industry can feel good about itself.

All the best from all of us at Retail Week. Have a very happy Christmas and New Year.