Re­tail overview

Re­tail­ers have shown re­mark­able re­silience over the last year and they need to con­tinue to show courage

Belfast Telegraph - Top 100 Northern Ireland Companies - - CONTENTS -

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.


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