Retailers have shown remarkable resilience over the last year and they need to continue to show courage
If I have learned anything in the last 12 months, it is the true meaning of resilience. Many more qualified than I would describe the past year as an ‘annus horribilis’ for the retail sector with many high street giants exiting the stage. Retailers such as Toys R Us, Coast and Maplin have closed for good while others like the once-mighty Debenhams and House of Fraser continue to struggle. These are challenging times for our retail sector, as 2019 will be the year of reinvention for our sector and for our high streets and town centres. Now more than ever we need to see bold new leadership in the retail sector.
The challenges only increased for retailers in Belfast following the devastating fire in the city’s only Primark store which ravaged the iconic Bank Buildings and caused enormous distress for the city’s retail sector, forcing many businesses to close for months. The period that followed with the cordon in place cannot be whitewashed. Many retailers did struggle. But with the backing of Belfast City Council and other trade bodies rallying around to alleviate the situation, many were able to get back on their feet.
However rather than its demise, we are actually seeing the restructuring of the high street. Like any restructuring process, there are always casualties. To survive and indeed thrive in retail it is a constant process of change and innovation.
A quick scan of this year’s Top 100 reveals there is more to our local retail sector than the losses that hit the headlines. Delve a little deeper and you will find there is some cause for optimism and that reports of the sector’s demise remain premature.
Four of our top 10 biggest employers are retailers meaning that one in every five households is reliant on a wage coming from this sector and jobs are continuing to grow. It’s no exaggeration to say almost every company-listed support, and is supported by, the retail industry.
Retail NI can testify to this as we enjoy close relationships with many of the banks and utility companies who have claimed a spot on the top 10 and admire the lengths these companies go to protect our members.
But if the picture is to really improve, Retail NI needs more than favourable working arrangements with our suppliers. I won’t be the first person in this publication to highlight that a lack of a devolved government and political uncertainty is adversely affecting Northern Ireland business.
Concerned by the plight of retailers, governments across the water have taken
proactive measures to send the sector on the road to recovery.
Town Teams, which stemmed from the Portas Review, cannot be extended to Northern Ireland without ministerial approval, despite all evidence suggesting the benefits these teams can have on city regeneration plans.
As we celebrate the approval of Business Improvement District (BID) schemes, towns in the rest of the UK have moved on to focus on Improvement Districts, dubbed the next generation of BIDS, yet it will be years before Northern Ireland can reach this level.
In the absence of these tried and tested life support machines, our members are having to find new, creative ways to keep their growth trajectory in the right direction and remain focused on fulfilling their long-term goals, despite the many barriers put in their way.
What strikes me most about Retail NI’S membership base is how willing they are to embrace change. Few sectors have experienced transformation on the same scale in the last 10 years as retail. As technology continues to evolve, so too does the way consumers interact with sellers and as a business owner, if you want to stay afloat you must ride the crest of this change. Northern Ireland has a thriving ecommerce industry and can point to a great many examples of traditional retailers who have now operate on a global scale thanks to the power of the Internet.
There are lessons to be learned for businesses across the board from the retail industry. Our retailers have shown how readily they can adapt to change and how being malleable is crucial to survival. What’s more, the resilient nature of retail is an admirable quality other business should seek to replicate.
With the unprecedented challenges facing businesses and uncertainty continuing to mount, it’s clear that all companies, regardless of sector, can no longer relay on the status quo if they are to stay ahead. And if they can embrace change and new trends with the same vivacity as our retailers, then I’m confidant Northern Ireland plc will continue to prosper.
In 2019 we are seeing the creation of more confident and dynamic independent retailers, who will be at the cutting edge of a new retail sector, leading toward 21st century town high streets. These are retailer entrepreneurs who are innovators and trendsetters. Consumer behaviour is rapidly changing and people want something different from their high streets and I believe that smaller, more agile and tech-savvy retailers who can adapt to this tidal wave of change will be the ones who will not just survive, but thrive.
The companies listed in this year’s Top 100 deserve to be congratulated on their achievements and should take time to celebrate rewards that have been reaped through hard work. That said, they must also continue to press ahead and strive for even greater things in the months and years ahead.
Retail NI wants to see a revival of Northern Ireland’s towns and cities and is working hard to deliver more experiential town centres. This means shops, hospitality, healthcare and residential services co-existing side by side, creating 21st century high streets. But we need assistance from our counterparts across all sectors to fulfil this goal. To drive opportunity, we need a collaborative approach and while this may seem like a daunting challenge, the Top 100 lists proves that our local businesses have the skills and know-how needed to deliver a retail industry in Northern Ireland that is streets ahead.
THE FIRE AT PRIMARK CAUSED DISTRESS TO BELFAST RETAILERS BUT BODIES LIKE THE CITY COUNCIL RALLIED AROUND AND SHOWED STRONG SUPPORT