The Retail Week Awards, sponsored by Salesforce, are always a fantastic occasion but, given everything that the past 18 months have thrown the industry’s way, this year’s went beyond a single night of celebration – they mark a moment in time.

First and foremost, the awards are of course a chance to celebrate the successes of retail’s brilliantly dedicated and diverse workforce during the most challenging of circumstances.

The coronavirus crisis shook retail to its foundations, but the response of everyone in the industry to collaborate and adapt at break-neck speed to overcome trading hurdles was inspirational. 

The quantity and quality of entries we received this year were outstanding – arguably the best they have ever been in the awards’ 28-year history – and for that we congratulate our winners and shortlisted nominees. But we must ensure their achievements during the pandemic resonate far beyond the walls of a black-tie do in London.

“The bravery, resilience, graft, agility and customer-centricity that companies and consumers have benefited from so much during the Covid-19 outbreak has to be a catalyst”

Right now, this industry has an opportunity to change the way that the people and the jobs on retail’s front line are viewed forever.

Frontline retail employees do not deserve the abhorrent physical and verbal abuse that is thrown at them on a daily basis in stores. Frontline retail staff do not deserve to be viewed as inferior to those in STEM industries or at ‘sexier’ tech companies – whether they be giants or start-ups.

The bravery, resilience, graft, agility and customer-centricity that companies and consumers have benefited from so much during the Covid-19 outbreak has to be a catalyst to change such outdated views and behaviour.

As Jason Tarry, chief executive of Tesco’s core UK and Ireland business, put it when acknowledging the immense role his colleagues played in the Feed the Nation campaign: “I genuinely felt a different appreciation by customers and people in society for the way that [our colleagues] helped make sure that they could stay fed, clothed and have other essential products through the pandemic.

“It was brilliant to see them appreciated and quite rightly proud of what they were doing. I would love to make sure that, when this is all over, some of that appreciation still sticks with our colleagues. Awards like this help make sure the efforts and all of the work and all of the amazing, incredible things that happened during the pandemic are still front of mind going forward.”

Rising to the occasion

Incredible is the right word for it. Retail’s record during the coronavirus crisis speaks for itself. Whether it be the rapid expansion of grocers’ online capacities, the way in which businesses ranging from Burberry to Primark manufactured gowns and masks or donated care packs for patients, or how others, such as H&M, ploughed ahead with sustainability drives despite the challenging landscape, retailers’ efforts deserve to be celebrated and remain “front of mind”, as Tarry said, for years to come.  

Crucially, that is not just front of mind in society, but in government.

That is why it was so infuriating to read the thoughts of prime minister Boris Johnson and one of his ministers during the Tory conference over the past few days.

Johnson downplayed labour and fuel shortages and the cost of living squeeze as simply the UK economy “waking up” post-Covid, shrugging off concerns raised by leading lights of retail such as Next chief executive Lord Wolfson.

“The words of Johnson and Loder do little to reassure retail leaders who fear the Conservatives are no longer a ‘party for business’ but a ‘party for Brexit’”

Johnson’s remarks came just days after West Dorset MP Chris Loder had the gall not only to brand supermarkets “commercial predators”, but to claim there would be a “great opportunity [for] the farmer down the street” were supermarket supply chains to “crumble”.

To be clear, Loder was talking about the same supermarkets that worked tirelessly with the government during the pandemic to ensure that hundreds of thousands of vulnerable, disabled and older people did not go hungry.

The same supermarkets whose frontline staff were hailed as key workers during the peak of the health emergency.

The same supermarkets that are often the biggest customers of smaller suppliers like the “farmer down the street” who Loder referred to.

The same supermarkets that won the AlixPartners Outstanding Contribution to Retail Award for the way they rose heroically to the occasion to feed the nation during the health emergency.

Tireless work

The words of Johnson and Loder do little to reassure retail leaders who fear the Conservatives are no longer a ‘party for business’ but a ‘party for Brexit’.

The government would do well to remember, recognise and support the efforts of retailers that have gone above and beyond during the pandemic, achieving feats that would have been difficult at the best of times.

Take our Hermes Retail Leader of the Year, Matt Moulding, the founder and chief executive of THG – The Hut Group – who led his business through the largest London IPO for five years, landed a mega-deal with Softbank and completed the acquisition of Cult Beauty, all while growing the top and bottom lines, during the past 18 months.

Take the winner of our Frontline Hero – Store Manager award, Marks & Spencer’s Becki Gorman, who cut short her recovery from a brain tumour to return to work, and spent her evenings and weekends doing pharmacy runs and delivering to people who were self-isolating.

“Whether you are an award winner or a shortlisted nominee, enjoy your success. Raise a glass in your stores, in your warehouses, in your head offices”

Take the winner of the Salesforce Frontline Hero – Initiative category, Boots, for its work in setting up the UK’s first drive-through Covid-19 testing facilities for NHS workers.

And take our Blue Yonder Retail Activist, BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson, who has lobbied tirelessly throughout the pandemic to make retail’s voice heard in Westminster on issues such as business rates, the rent moratorium and the HGV driver shortage.

As Dickinson put it when accepting her award: “Together, we’ve saved companies. We’ve saved jobs. The industry in all its glorious diversity stands in higher public standing than it ever has.”

That is worth celebrating. Whether you are an award winner or a shortlisted nominee, enjoy your success. Raise a glass in your stores, in your warehouses, in your head offices. You are the toast not just of the industry, but of the nation.