The Monday Interview: Talking shop on the future of retail

Former senator Lorraine Higgins took up her post as chief executive of business lobby group Retail Excellence last week. She talks to Pádraig Hoare about the challenges ahead.

Retail Excellence chief executive Lorraine Higgins and chairman JP Kennedy, also the managing director of TileStyle, submitting the organisation’s 2019 pre-budgetsubmission to Government. Picture: Robbie Reynolds

Retail is in the DNA of the new chief executive of business lobby group Retail Excellence, Lorraine Higgins — her ancestors have been running shops and local business for around 120 years and counting.

The former Labour Party senator took up the mantle of representing Retail Excellence’s 1,700 retailers across the country last week, having been deputy under former boss David Fitzsimons.

A former law lecturer and barrister, it is no surprise Ms Higgins has returned to what she has known since her very first memories — women in leadership, knowing what it is like to be at the coalface of an industry that evolves.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be brought up in a family where my mother and grandmother ruled the roost, and both were retailers. You do take inspiration from the women that have come before you. My mother had a newsagent, my grandmother had a newsagent. It is very much instilled in me as a tradition.

“We were always conscious of being involved in business growing up. All my siblings are self-employed, and I was also before going into politics and into this role. That kind of flair and spirit was instilled in you from a young age.

"My great-granduncle would have started the first Ford garage in the West of Ireland at the turn of the 20th century. As a result, my grandfather and his brother went into that business. My father did, and my brother is somewhat involved in the garage business.”

The significance of retail to the Irish economy cannot be understated, with 45,000 businesses, of which 75% are family-owned, employing 282,000 employees and contributing €7bn per annum to the exchequer, according to Ms Higgins.

“Having been brought up in it, I know exactly how difficult it can be to keep the doors of a family-run business open, and people employed. The value of it to the local community, the employment, and the vibrancy of the town centres is sometimes overlooked, and that is why I feel so strongly about advocating for retail.

“We have 282,000 people employed directly in retail. That makes us the largest private industry employer in the country. When you compare the representation nationally with a sector like farming, which has 140,000 farmers, they have a cabinet minister and two junior ministers.

"Yet we have nobody with a designated profile at cabinet level, or even at junior level. I will be personally advocating to change that imbalance.

“We’re not all getting an Apple or a Google into our small towns. Yet there are retailers there employing upwards of 10 people and that is significant for the local economy, in terms of the multiplier effect and the way people spend their money. For too long, that has been overlooked.”

Irish retailers are facing external challenges which demand unique solutions to issues such as Brexit, sterling devaluation, and the onslaught of cheap non-EU imports, whose prices are sometimes distorted as a consequence of Vat or duties not being paid on them, Ms Higgins said on releasing the Retail Excellence pre-budget submission.

“It’s always been very difficult to make any case for retail in the budget. I can never remember any Minister for Finance referencing retail in a speech. That is a massive disappointment for an industry of such massive importance.

"Certainly there are things that can be implemented if the political will is there to do so. These are solutions that are very doable,” she said.

Such measures include an increase in the percentage contribution to applicants under the Trading Online Voucher Scheme provided by local enterprise offices, and the development of a new funding tier under the voucher aimed specifically at internationally-focused retailers who require increased supports to take on the global consumer market.

Retail is evolving rapidly and the juggernaut that is online shopping is the future, said Ms Higgins.

“Retail is evolving, and becoming increasingly boundary-less. People in Mayo can sell shoes in Wexford, buy clothes in Spain and Italy. A lot of retailers are getting into the model.

"One of my objectives is to try and get more of our members online, to make sure they are funded under the Digital Trading Voucher, to have a fully functional website.

“We provide full Google, Twitter, and Facebook training to help with their digital strategies. We do realise it’s imperative retailers have a multi-channel approach.

“It is more pressing given the weather-related events we have seen lately. E-commerce and bricks and mortar can work together. It is another opportunity to make sales when the shop doors close in the evening.

“We should be looking for better to protect against these challenges, and that is what online presents. We are behind the curve. Most retailers could be exporters once we harness their energy, innovation, and hunger to internationalise their ambitions.”

However, the town centre and the shops that give it character cannot be forgotten, said Ms Higgins.

“If we’re not supporting those in their e-commerce capacity, then we have to look at how we are going to rejuvenate town centres in a meaningful way.

"Unless we have a retail mix in a town centre, you are not going to encourage footfall. Increasing rates in areas where people are already struggling is another nail in the coffin. We want to introduce a cap in how much bills can rise or fall in a given year. If there is a rise, then it would be done on an incremental basis."

“It is one of the biggest costs, along with employment, when a business is setting up — people are hit with a big rates bill as soon as they open their door.

“We need to give people willing to take a chance on starting a business a chance to get going before we bill them,” she said.


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