“There is no room for complacency”

Reflecting on the toughest period retailers have faced for a generation, Howard Saycell says most Retra members have done very well under the circumstances. But he’s hopeful they don’t get forgotten when their customers’ lives go back to “normal”.

There can be little doubt that the last few months will live long in the memory for all of us. Across the globe nations have found themselves battling with an invisible enemy and we have all found out a lot about both ourselves and the politicians that we have elected to office.

Back in early 2020, nobody could have predicted what was about to befall ours and most other nations across the world. The last global pandemic was over 100 years ago, so none of us were remotely prepared for what was about to happen. The tragic loss of life coupled with the changes to our lifestyles has led to a new and very different way of life.

Many more people now see working from home as the new norm. Social distancing has changed the way we interact with each other and has had serious implications for all types of businesses. Not least retail, where the landscape has changed dramatically. There are whole sectors, such as leisure and hospitality, where good businesses have seen their revenue streams almost completely dry up.

As the lockdown gradually eases in the UK, we see other countries where they are still battling frightening numbers of new cases and deaths. As I write, the announcement has just been made that shoppers will be required to wear a face mask in all shops from 24 July. We will be living with the “new norm” for the foreseeable future. There is no room for complacency as COVID-19 is not going anywhere fast!

Leicester went back into a localised lockdown at the end of June due to a spike in coronavirus cases.

There is much that we in the electrical retail sector can influence and a great deal that we cannot. Whilst working strictly within the guidelines, many Retra members have reported that business since lockdown has been remarkably good. Those with a strong online presence saw high demand in the early stages of lockdown. Interest was very significant for refrigeration products and many members sold out quite quickly. At this stage supply was still quite good and many retailers that are members of a buying group benefitted from the relationship the groups have with the big manufacturers.

Over the months, demand has remained consistently high. Other areas of strong demand have been TV, MDA and SDA. It is also interesting that since shops have been allowed to reopen, demand online has not been adversely affected. Footfall in store is down, but customers are “shopping with purpose”. Conversion rates are much higher than normal and there are far fewer “browsers” than one would normally expect.

Whilst business has been good for many, we are all at the mercy of the constraints within the supply chain going forward. Many big brands are now experiencing shortages of some key lines. This is almost inevitable given that this is a global crisis and many production facilities across the world have had periods of shutdown. Suppliers I know are doing everything they can to keep stock on retailers’ shelves but they in turn are experiencing issues in their own supply chains.

Let us hope the industry can get everything back on track in time to take advantage of both Black Friday and the run up to Christmas in the Autumn. I have always believed that we as an industry compete for consumers’ discretionary spend. There are notable exceptions to this, such as a family cannot function without a washing machine or a cooker, but the decision to buy a new large screen TV or to go away on holiday is clearly a discretionary one. Where avenues of spend are limited currently I think we have benefitted as an industry. Members have reported people coming in store and saying they are going to buy a new TV instead of going on their normal spring or summer break.

I do think that given the circumstances retail has found itself in, the vast majority of Retra members have done a remarkably good job. The Retra Helpline has been exceptionally busy with members doing everything possible to comply with the ever-changing guidelines. Many have proved their value to their local communities, and I hope very much that when things return to something like “normal” these people will remember the businesses that have looked after them.