Can this government do something more to help retailers through another few years of little or no growth?
Probably not. But the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee has recently announced a new inquiry into the UK retail industry and on paper the focus looks sensible - BIS’s own strategy paper, the Portas Review, internet sales, the skills needed in the sector and the relevant costs and regulations.
It would appear that we may at last have said goodbye to those familiar litanies about “bullying” supermarkets, “clone town” Britain and the like. A practical agenda, however, does not necessarily mean a practicable result.
Maybe something will emerge from the Committee’s deliberations that will help businesses survive. The track record of Select Committee reports, however, suggests otherwise. Most of the evidence from the sector is likely to be drafted and voiced by the relevant trade associations, which implies the lowest common denominator across the subset of retailers represented.
Whatever the Committee’s recommendations, anything requiring a slug of taxpayers’ money hasn’t a prayer. Innovative ideas are needed, for example, to stabilise and reverse the decline of many town centres, but ministers are stuck with the failing Portas Review and the heavy fixed costs of property-based retailing are unlikely to diminish as landlords and the Treasury cling to their revenue streams.
No doubt much of the discussion will focus on specific constraints and barriers to growth and innovation, whether financial, material or human.
The underlying problem, however, is the prevailing lack of confidence. The government has lost the battle to stabilise, let alone reduce, its borrowing, and ministerial resistance to cuts in their own budgets is stiffening.
With no stimulus to consumer confidence and spending in sight, several more years of hard scrabbling for sales and margins looks inevitable.
Meanwhile, the growth of internet retailing proceeds apace. Without this capability even a small specialist retailer will eventually suffer.
What can any committee of politicians tell retailers that they don’t already know?
Kevin Hawkins is an independent retail consultant
“Anything needing a slug of taxpayers’ money hasn’t a prayer”