NIRC – making a tangible difference
Northern Ireland Retail Consortium’s director Aodhán Connolly reveals 2019 was a year of unprecedented challenges for the retail industry in Northern Ireland.
Interview by Neighbourhood Retailer staff writer, Julie Nash
The driving force behind Northern Ireland Retail Consortium (NIRC), he says the ultimate goal of his role is to make a tangible positive difference for retailers. NIRC has the weight and support of the British Retail Consortium (BRC) behind it, but when Aodhán took up the reins as director of its devolved Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, it was a new opportunity to have a considerable impact for the retail industry in Northern Ireland, to shape the debates, to have incisive input and influence through tireless political engagement.
“I was given a platform to sell not only the retail industry but what’s best about Northern Ireland and why we should be a growth market for retailers,” said Aodhán.
“Northern Ireland is not at saturation point. 40 years of economic turmoil had led to Northern Ireland not being the obvious best prospect. That changed in the nineties, and is continuing to change and grow.”
NIRC represents a broad church of retailers – from the large multi-nationals to small bricks and mortar businesses and franchises.
“I prefer the term ‘retail industry’ to ‘retail sector,’” says Aodhán. “The NIRC represents the retail industry, and within that are multiple sectors – from fashion, food to go, and all the various retail sectors. There are probably 20 to 30 different retail sectors – from pet food retailers to high end perfumeries.”
How do you bridge those many different interests?
“NIRC is very much member led. Our members give us a position of trust, and great understanding. For example, 100 different companies and 100 association members, all have different interests. Our members put trust in us, which is why we can say we’re leading the retail industry in Northern Ireland. It’s impossible to keep everyone happy all of the time so we have to do what is best for the industry.
“I use the analogy of a knight in shining armour. Sometimes we’re the sword – for example on business rates; sometimes we’re the shield, when it’s a reputation issue; and sometimes we’re the standard bearer telling of the industry’s work. More money is raised by the retail industry for charities than any other sector, and retail staff give more in volunteer hours. The retail industry in NI has raised over £15m for charities in the past five years, and that’s not including the value of 55,000 hours of volunteer hours, which is also a huge amount.
“The retail industry is the largest private sector employer in Northern Ireland. One in eight households has someone working in retail, more women than men. £1,400 is spent per person, each year on training.
“Retail also has more people than any other sector starting a second career, for many different reasons. It may be to top up a pension or parents returning to work – retail has a really diverse work force.
“For example, one of our members is a large DIY store. I like to do a lot of site visits and talk to members. It employs men who have worked a life time in construction, who know just about everything about construction. The employer will train them in customer care and so on – which sums up retail. They hire for attitude and train for skill. The work force is cross generational. Older people bring a lifetime of experience, younger people bring different skills and ethusiasm.
“Retail has challenges – like any sector, however one of the biggest challenges has been that the retail industry has been undervalued by both the body politic and the public. But perhaps people have a better understanding of how food gets on the table now because of the Brexit debate. If a truck leaves the south of Spain to bring fresh fruit and vegetables, there’s a two hour window for the ‘just in time’ supply chain to arrive at a supermarket anywhere in NI. This is the biggest threat under Brexit.
“My views on Brexit have not changed over these three years; we need to have unfettered access to the EU mainland, the south and the GB market.
“The current deal on the table does not give unfettered access – particularly from GB to NI. There will be paperwork, barriers that were never there before. There will be added complexity and costs.
“Retail is high volume and low profit. Northern Ireland consumers have half the discretionary income as elsewhere. Work needs to be done by the EU and UK to make sure it’s as frictionless as possible. This deal means there will be significant costs through the supply chain.
“There seems to be a narrative now in Westminster that there’s a deal and so the ‘Northern Ireland problem’ is solved, but Westminster is not listening to the concerns of retailers. Food is the biggest problem. All sectors are looking at the complexity and thinking it’s only slightly better than no deal, but still complex and challenging”.
While NIRC is part of the BRC, it has a certain amount of autonomy locally to deliver on local needs. However BRC brings a definite weight when it comes to Westminster engagement. The emphasis on Northern Ireland and the border has been able to open doors. NIRC has appeared before various Westminster committees.
“I’m very fortunate to have my colleague at the BRC William Bain, who has the biggest brain when it comes to EU trade. His political knowledge and expertise is unrivalled. Together we were working 60 to 70 hours weeks, taking midnight calls, doing whatever we could to inform the debate and deliver for members – I have never worked harder.”
From Westminster to local councils, NIRC has a broad remit when it comes to political engagement.
“Up until the reforms and the new super councils were formed, Northern Ireland had 900 public officials at council level. There are only a couple of other places in the world that had a higher rate of public officials. Also, in Northern Ireland we need to meet with five or six different political parties rather than say three at Westminister. Our standing with the body politic in Northern Ireland has got considerably stronger.
“There has been a seismic change in the retail industry in the past five years. There are changes in how we do things. Here, the large retailers had kept their heads below the parapet, but we need to shout more about what we do like our environmental campaign ‘Better Retail, Better World’”.
‘Better Retail, Better World’
‘Better Retail Better World’ is mobilising the retail industry to meet some of the biggest global challenges of the coming decades highlighted by the UN, including, sustainable economic growth, inequalities, climate change, and responsible consumption and production.
Using the widely recognised United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as a framework, clear, transparent and measurable goals developed with businesses and campaigners are at the heart of the initiative.
Put simply, this action will mean reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation and waste sent to landfill and more support for people from under represented demographics to progress in employment.
“Members have bought in to this campaign” explained Aodhán. “They are responsible retailers; we need to let the public know. I’m extremely proud of what we’re doing. We have many good stories to tell. Retailers take a lot of flak. They are easy targets, especially on employment, skills, and the environment.
“However we had a vacuum here with Stormont down. The NIRC has put its head above the parapet and spoken out. This has resulted in a certain amount of praise and positive feedback, but also some really nasty comments on social media. There’s a lot of frustration over Brexit. The business community has been critical of Boris’ deal. Bottom line is we need unfettered access north, south, east and west.”
The 2020s will be an era of transformation and not without its challenges.
“There will be one of two things – retail Armageddon or retail reinvention. We believe it will be reinvention. There will be fewer but better shops, fewer but better jobs and more of a mix of shopping online and bricks and mortar. How we spend our money is changing, that’s why we need to look at many high streets as destinations.
“As retail contracts, we need more hospitality and leisure, we need to find ways of making people want to spend their time in town centres. The current focus of spending money will change. The focus will be on creating places where people spend time – an eclectic mix of retail, hospitality and leisure. We also need more people living in town centres for that to happen.
“There will need to be capital grants, tax incentives, buy-in from central government to create new town centre amenities, but we need to plan these new communities carefully – aspirational living for those who want to spend time in city centres.”
“The rates regime is stopping investment and resulted in the quick demise of some retailers. The government puts up rates to get money in but those rates without reform get higher causing a quicker contraction of retail which leads to less properties paying so rates go up and the vicious circle continues. Investment decisions
“One of the biggest tragedies of the Assembly being down for three years and Brexit, is how that’s affected investment decisions. We need to examine the economic impact. We’ve been reliant on Westminster committees to do that. We didn’t hear the voice of the Northern Ireland business community being heard by committees at Stormont. It’s been hugely disappointing. When the history books are written, there will be a tangible disappointment about how it’s been handled. However it’s great to see the Assembly restored.”
Future of retail
“The future of retail will be transforming what we do – it will become more about customer experience, with the same high level of standards expected from Birmingham to Belfast.
“The personal service aspect is highly important. It’s not just about technology driven front of house, it’s about personal experience. People want a good experience – and retail is a consumer driven industry.
“It used to be that people were money poor, time rich. That’s been reversed. Retailers need to give the consumer the experience they want.”
For more information of NIRC visit: brc.org.uk/nirc