As Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss challenge each other for leadership of the Conservative Party and the country, all eyes are on them for solutions to pressing problems such as the cost-of-living crisis.
That particular challenge would also be at the top of retailers’ lists of priorities if they were PM for a day, as we found out when we spoke to industry leaders.
Updated: This article originally appeared in February 2022.
The soaring cost of living for consumers and ongoing supply chain disruption that adds to retailers’ costs and hits availability are some of the challenges confronting the industry and the country as the Covid-19 pandemic subsides.
Pets at Home chief executive Peter Pritchard regards the former as “very pertinent” and believes safeguards must be put in place to look after the vulnerable.
As PM, he says: “I would make sure the lowest-paid are afforded the most protection against such an inflationary and difficult environment. Most of our colleagues are in that place. They are already hard-working, so I would make sure their hard work isn’t eaten away by inflation.
“The rise in energy costs would be a particular priority because energy doesn’t discriminate – whether you have a £20,000 house or a £100,000 one, the cost of heating it doesn’t change. I really fear the impact on colleagues that these costs will have this year.”
“I would make sure the lowest-paid are afforded the most protection against such an inflationary and difficult environment”
Peter Pritchard, Pets at Home
Entrepreneur Theo Paphitis, owner of Boux Avenue, Robert Dyas and Ryman, would act on business costs if he were PM. He says: “I’d tackle rising shipping costs head-on with a laser focus on the supposedly frictionless imports and exports processes of the UK.
“That is the key part, already exacerbated by high costs and unreliable shipping. Current shipping is expensive but most importantly it is unreliable, so I would implement a policy to make it more efficient and cost-effective.”
“Current shipping is expensive but most importantly it is unreliable, so I would implement a policy to make it more efficient and cost-effective”
Theo Paphitis, Boux Avenue, Robert Dyas and Ryman
As the UK hopes to set a new direction of travel in the wake of the pandemic, Marks & Spencer chair Archie Norman – who actually served as an MP, was a shadow minister following his election in 1997 and later an adviser to then business secretary Greg Clarke – believes the conditions must be created for business success.
He says: “In a post-Brexit world, the government needs to know how it’s going to support the enterprise sector in generating wealth. People talk about levelling up, but you can’t really approach levelling up without knowing what your supply-side strategy is.”
He maintains: “The most important thing I would do is abolish the apprenticeship levy. It’s become a tax on employment and has had the perverse effect of reducing the amount of training that companies do because it’s bureaucratised it and forced good businesses to involve third parties. It’s a failed policy.”
AO boss John Roberts echoes this view.
“The apprenticeship levy has shown that you can’t tax your way to a better future in this context; you have to inspire. That is hard to do, but when you have inspired a business to be involved they do so in a much longer and more meaningful way,” he says.
“The most important thing I would do is abolish the apprenticeship levy. It’s become a tax on employment and has had the perverse effect of reducing the amount of training that companies do”
Archie Norman, Marks & Spencer
Norman says Britain needs a “knowledge-based economy” post-Brexit, so he would reallocate funds from the apprenticeship levy and instead offer them to companies to provide training for upskilling workers “on a contested basis”.
“So, if we need to have 100,000 experts in coding and software development, who’s going to offer the best schemes to do that? We could then have the best global government and private-sector-sponsored skills programme anywhere in the world,” he says.
Education, skills and social mobility
The importance of people in retail means they are top of the list for other business leaders.
Co-op Food chief executive Jo Whitfield says: “I would advocate a social mobility change to enable all businesses to invest in training and support for school-leavers and colleagues in their business to advance.”
Whitfield says she would also set up a national apprenticeship funding scheme, abolish university fees and support sectors that have undergone recent funding cuts, such as the arts and creative industries.
She says these initiatives would “enable society to be a more diverse place” and leave “paths through to careers open, irrespective of social background or area of interest for future work”.
“I would advocate a social mobility change to enable all businesses to invest in training and support for school-leavers and colleagues in their business to advance”
Jo Whitfield, Co-op Food
White Stuff, Visa Europe and the Football Association chair Debbie Hewitt believes the government should recognise and promote the careers that the retail industry creates.
She says: “My priority would be education – find a way to get kids to know a lot more about retail and why it is a great sector to join.
“Maybe bring in policies around schools, academies and universities with regard to work experience. This is a brilliant sector but it is seldom top of the list in career options.
“Whenever I do careers talks, very few kids, students or teachers understand the variety that retail offers, the excellent training that it gives and the opportunities to develop,” she adds.
“It is one of the few sectors – similar to hospitality – where it is genuinely possible to start at the grassroots and journey to a significant leadership role.”
“My priority would be education – find a way to get kids to know a lot more about retail and why it is a great sector to join”
Debbie Hewitt, White Stuff, Visa Europe and the FA
AO founder John Roberts, who is on the board of young people and youth centres charity OnSide, would ensure the long-term provision of promised funding for such facilities, which would be matched by business donations.
He says: “The government has come up with the big society, one society, levelling up – but they are all rebrands of the same idea. The common thread is that they don’t have any actual plan for implementing, so they blow hundreds of millions on the latest initiative but it’s not done sustainably, it’s not run like a business and so there’s no longevity. This would be a social service by society and business would be big beneficiaries.
“I believe that talent is evenly distributed but opportunity is not – these youth centres are about addressing that.”
“I believe that talent is evenly distributed but opportunity is not – youth centres are about addressing that”
John Roberts, AO
Business rates and retail detail
No retail political wishlist would be complete without business rates being pretty near the top.
Paphitis says: “You may remember Boris famously said: ‘f*** business’? If PM for the day, I would make sure I was a champion for business, not against it.
“I would grasp the business rates nettle once and for all, bringing the retail sector back from the brink of the precipice. Dealing with archaic business rates would provide high street retailers – from chains to single stores – the much-needed breathing room required to continue driving the economy and providing jobs across the UK.”
Pritchard says: “I would once and for all level the playing field on business rates. Retail disproportionately shares the tax burden and the rest of business needs to share the pain.
“Business rates are very effective as a collection mechanic, but the premise of taxing based on location is flawed”
Peter Pritchard, Pets at Home
“Business rates are very effective as a collection mechanic, but the premise of taxing based on location is flawed. We need a tax that is more related to revenue and would comprise a fair proportion of all businesses’ earnings, rather than expecting some to pick up a greater share of the burden.”
Of course, retailers would introduce some policies that might benefit their own businesses.
Pritchard would act to end discrimination against pet ownership by private landlords. He says: “I would put in place measures to level up for pet owners. The reality is most pets are in rescue centres because their owners have moved and the new landlord won’t accept a pet, so not allowing landlords to discriminate against pet owners would be important.”
Cosmetics specialist Lush founder and chief executive Mark Constantine would make 3.30pm the end of the working day – so that “everyone can enjoy a 4pm bath”.
He explains: “I read some years ago that you make more mistakes at 4pm because you’re more tired than at any other time of the day. So if you have a bath at 4pm, you won’t make some stupid mistake that you’ll regret or have to correct.
“There’s this whole piece of work that says if you have a bath at 4pm that you’ll sleep better at night. That’s the other thing – I’m tired, especially if I’ve been up since 5am. And I’m definitely sleeping better at night.”
Perhaps Constantine’s advice for taking an early bath might have helped Boris Johnson avoid the political equivalent.
Now it is up to Sunak or Truss to find a way to take the country forward.
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