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Retail Reflections: Time for CEs of trade & industry bodies to get business back on the agenda

Alan Monahan writes: I wonder how many of you really believe that politicians care about the welfare of small businesses or think that they just regard them as cash cows.

A couple of weeks ago there were murmurings when I cast doubt on the statement by Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, that those in the corridors of power were only just beginning to grapple with the problem of business rates.

I said then that I wished they had even got that far! For years, I have wearied of platitudes and broken promises regarding this unfair tax. Chancellors of the Exchequer and business ministers have come and gone as this particular political can has continued to be kicked down the road, thwarting meaningful discussion about reform.

And call me an old cynic, but I won’t be waiting with bated breath to see how Philip Hammond’s hint on Sky News that he is considering hitting online-only retailers with a so-called ‘Amazon-tax’ actually helps bricks-and-mortar shops. It should, of course. However, I certainly won’t be surprised if the resultant revenue ends up in government coffers.

Small businesses are being badly served and those in retail are suffering more than most. Indeed, if research by Enterprise Nation is taken into account, the problems of independent retailers, suppliers and their peers seem to be well and truly on the back burner as far as parliament is concerned.

According to the excellent entrepreneur network, the number of times ‘small business’ was mentioned in the House of Commons dropped by half in 2017 compared to the previous year – from 1,622 in 2016 to just 825 times over the whole of last year.

The ongoing trend in the last five years has also seen the number decline slightly, with 1,213 references in 2013, to 1,066 in 2014 and 955 in 2015. The highest number of mentions in one day in those five years was on 9th February 2016 in a debate on Sunday trading hours and the devastating impact on business of floods in the North West of England.

Emma Jones, founder of Enterprise Nation, admits that while counting the number of mentions in this way feels rather crude, ‘it has in many respects confirmed what we knew – that the UK’s small businesses have fallen off the government’s agenda’.

She goes on: ‘For a while now our members have told us they feel policy has shown little awareness of the risk/reward relationship and the hours of blood, sweat and tears small business founders put in to their enterprise, often ploughing their own money into a venture and keeping it afloat by doing a job.

‘While the government claims to have the ear of business representative groups, this clearly isn’t resulting in healthy or constructive parliamentary debates. We have a job to do to get it back on the agenda.’

Emma Jones

Emma’s assessment is clearly a wake-up call to those leaders of trade and industry organisations involved in discussions with government representatives. I’m sure that these chief executives set out to do a good job. But they must be wary of the almost habitual lip service paid by politicians and seek to make them more accountable. Not easy, but they owe it to their members to try – or risk being perceived as part of a cosy coterie where prevarication is tolerated.

And it should surely be the norm – not big news – when representatives of trade bodies visit the Commons or Lords to talk business. Yet such meetings are sometimes reported with a reverence which suggests that it is an honour to be asked to go to Westminster. What nonsense. A plea to chief executives: don’t be flattered. Our industry should be demanding an ongoing dialogue with Parliament. And if you say you already have that, please give us more feedback.

At the time of writing, Enterprise Nation’s research – which looked at the number of references found in Hansard, the faithful transcript of parliamentary debates – has revealed that so far in 2018 ‘small business’ has been mentioned 674 times in the House of Commons. I expect that number to soar as we near the Brexit final straight.

Shoppercentric’s latest report shows the majority of shoppers rate corporate retailers and companies poorly when it comes to putting consumer interests first. Ipsos Connect and Trinity Mirror’s study shows that consumers trust ‘almost nothing’ and while almost half of consumers (42%) distrust brands, 69% distrust advertising.

But The Market Creative agency believes that by applying an understanding of ‘behavioural economics’, brands can change the way shoppers act. And its latest report, Top Trends Driving Consumer Behaviour, claims to identify what they want to see in a brand.

It says that those who find new ways to capture people’s attention will also grab their custom, while ‘selfless brands’ that give more than they take will win hearts because more and more of us are becoming ‘fatigued, bored and at time resistive to the push and sell of marketing’. However, the report adds that new digital celebrity ‘influencers’ have transformed the art of creating compelling content and building an audience.

And as people have become more sceptical towards what brands are telling them, they want to see products put to the test – and the ‘the more extreme the conditions the more it entertains’.

The Market Creative thinks that brands can ‘encourage people to do more of what they know should be doing’ by showing how their product can make a positive difference to lives, while savvy companies are seeing success in taking the load off consumers’ minds by introducing minimal user interfaces, focused offerings and straightforward purchasing.

And, apparently, the power of laughter and humorous content shouldn’t be underestimated as 49% of people who shared content on social media did so because they found it funny and believed others would do too.

The report also says that the surge of social platforms has opened a window to our personal lives, allowing brands access to our thoughts, reactions and frustrations which can feature in the marketing of the brands we love.

And a third of consumers (33%) are now choosing to buy from brands they believe are doing social or environmental good.

Having a great offering is no longer enough, it seems.

I’m not sure just how much this look through the lens of behavioural economics will help retailers. But I do know that when it comes to buying and selling, life has never been so complicated!