I’m excited and honoured to have formally taken over the reins at the BRC last week. It’s been a busy start with a very mixed picture emerging as retailers have reported their Christmas trading figures. The December Retail Sales Monitor is always awaited nervously - it’s the first concrete indication of how the whole sector fared during its most crucial trading period, and the best starting point for mapping prospects and priorities for the year ahead.
Well, the final sums are in. I revealed the numbers to a roomful of journalists at the start of the week, and they don’t make easy reading. We’d hoped a strong showing in the final shopping weekend before Christmas would help compensate for a slow start. While that weekend certainly was ‘the big one’, December’s overall year-on-year growth figure of just 1.5% is disappointing, flatlining against inflation.
Food sales performed slightly better, driven up by a last-minute festive rush. But it was a case of acceptable rather than exceptional. Online really came of age, with click & collect going from strength to strength and dramatically increased use of mobile devices, but remember that the channel represents less than 5% of the food market at the moment.
“We’ll be keeping up the pressure for a business rates freeze in April”
It confirms 2012 was no easy ride for retail. Pressure on household incomes continued, with increases in living costs outstripping wages for most. The result was reluctance to spend, a keener focus on price and the lowering of average transaction values. Add in rising business costs, and you had some retailers in a precarious position and empty shops reaching a record 11.3% high.
And 2013 will bring more bumps. While some retailers have adjusted better than others, we head into the new year with no imminent sign of a turnaround in customers’ circumstances.
Against this relentlessly tough economic backdrop, it matters more than ever that the BRC campaigns successfully to control government-imposed costs and regulation so members’ businesses can succeed and contribute to investment, jobs and growth. As a top priority, we’ll be keeping up the pressure for a business rates freeze in April.
On the food front, our members remain strong supporters of the Responsibility Deal. There’s been huge progress on labelling and reformulation. We’ll continue our dialogue with the Department of Health to ensure the same sort of commitments are achieved from all parts of the food sector and further measures are not unevenly weighted against retailers.
On waste, let’s move on from carrier bags to the real issues of sustainable consumption and production. Our members are at the forefront of developments here and appreciate the importance of collaboration across the supply chain.
Lastly, we’ll be keeping an eye on the progress of the Grocery Code Adjudicator, which is expected to start operating in April and be in full swing by the autumn. Now it’s going ahead, retailers want to ensure it works well and is fair. The government must ensure its role is tightly defined and strictly limited to overseeing the GSCOP, so costs don’t spiral and become an even bigger burden on retailers.
Helen Dickinson is director general of the BRC