After eight years as head of retail at KMPG, Helen Dickinson can’t say she didn’t know what she was letting herself in for when she took over as director general of the British Retail Consortium this January. At the time, when asked if she could see light at the end of the tunnel for retailers, her answer was a resounding “no”.
Her pessimism seemed well founded when last month, the Centre for Retail Research predicted 2013 would be the worst year for retailers since 2008. So why, when The Grocer meets her at the BRC’s Westminster HQ six months after she gave that gloomy prognosis, does she seem to have a new-found spring in her step?
Simple. Despite the plethora of high-profile retail casualties this year, the latest BRC figures show sales up 1.4% year-on-year, the strongest retail performance for three years. Factor in the predicted £243m boost from the royal baby and the impact of the recent heatwave and it looks as though retail’s fortunes could finally be turning. “At the very least, we’ve survived the storm,” says Dickinson. “The figures look better, consumers are more confident and seem willing to go out and spend more money.”
Marital status: Single
Education: School in New Zealand and Devon. Kingston Polytechnic, first-class honours in accounting and finance
Career highlight: Joining the BRC
Favourite thing about UK retail: “The dynamic, innovative and ever-changing nature of the industry. It’s fast-moving and exciting”
Favourite other country: “Botswana. I had the holiday of a lifetime there last year”
Book or Kindle: Kindle
Last book read: Jay Rayner’s A Greedy Man in a Hungry World
That’s not to say we’re out of the woods just yet, she stresses. “What we can’t afford now are any big shocks, any big disruptions that knock confidence - if issues in Europe kick off again, for example. What’s not clear is whether this is the beginning of an upturn or a fundamental realignment where we just continue to bump along the bottom. Personally I’m a bit more optimistic than that.”
Dickinson isn’t the only woman keen to see the high street resuscitated, of course. One of her first acts as BRC boss was to claim the serious stuff in the Portas Review was being lost in the personality sideshow. So has that changed now the BRC, alongside other trade bodies and retailers such as Tesco, has been parachuted in to take over the legwork from Portas via the new Future High Streets Forum?
Apparently, yes. “There’s no doubt the government is well aware there are huge issues that need addressing,” says Dickinson. “What Portas did was to raise the profile of the issues. My concern was that it was too driven by personality, but I think that has diminished now.”
Whether that means the forum, or any of the other high-street taskforces that have sprung up as quickly as shops have closed down, will fare any better “remains to be seen”, she says. “We realise that ultimately it’s the Treasury whose door we need to be knocking on. Of course, there’s a risk that we have all the right parties around the table, all pointing the finger at each other and nothing changes. But at least now we’re leading the conversation.”
Other topics Dickinson is keen to take the lead on during discussions with Chancellor George Osborne include the urgent reform of business rates. She’s heading a BRC campaign for a freeze in the short-term and a medium-term major rewiring of a system she claims is bankrupt and was first to give evidence to MPs at the recently launched BIS retail inquiry.
Although she admits frustration that the inquiry will not report its findings until October, Dickinson feels the issue - with Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Boots all screaming for rates reform - has reached tipping point. However, she concedes: “If you’re going to reform a whole tax system you can’t do that overnight, it’s going to take a number of years.”
Making the task more challenging still is the rash of tax avoidance stories involving big companies such as Starbucks, Amazon and Google. Dickinson is unequivocal this shouldn’t muddy the waters. “Decoupling the tax system to reflect the global nature of business is a job for the G20 and G8, not the government, let alone the BRC,” she says. “We want to ensure this confusion doesn’t mean the government fails to tackle the domestic issues of rates reform.”
She is also keen to ensure that internally, BRC members are unified when it comes to big taxation issues. Last month, she chaired a round table of heads of tax and directors of finance from all the leading retailers in the UK last month, discussing issues such as how to level the playing field on tax between retailers and their online rivals without constraining online growth.
“Yes, it’s a hot potato,” she smiles. “The conclusion was that we need to stand together as an industry. There are two ways to look at it: either ‘oh my god this is a nightmare and it’s putting us out of business’, or embrace the fact there are huge opportunities for innovation - and we’re seeing plenty of evidence of that.”
Another issue that’s highlighted the responsiveness retailers is the horsemeat scandal, she believes. “I wouldn’t say their reputation has remained unscathed but trust has remained high. It’s certainly higher than other sectors, such as the banks.”
That might not be saying much, but it’s a start and with a prolonged period of hot weather forecast, Dickinson is upbeat - although as ever, she tempers her optimism. “Yes the hot weather is good for sales on a short-term basis, but we’re looking at a period of a few weeks and we’ve had seven years of recession. There are bigger issues at stake.”
Though not big enough to block out the chink of light Dickinson can now see at the end of the tunnel.