Sustainability Challenges

As a veteran of the Retail Week Awards judging panel – I have been involved for the last 20 years or so – I can’t recall a more dramatic and rapid period of change for the industry. Britain’s retailers are in the eye of a perfect storm; a sluggish economy, cautious consumers, escalating cost pressures and above all dramatic changes in the competitive landscape, resulting primarily from digital technologies.

In my view the single biggest change we’ve seen is price transparency – the smartphone-wielding savvy shopper has powerful comparison tools and more information than any of us could have imagined a few years ago. So there’s no hiding place now for uncompetitive pricing, and it’s sorting out those retailers who have truly differentiated positions from those who don’t.

Whilst making sure they’re not too far out of line on price, most successful retailers are focusing on other dimensions such as product quality, expertise and service, branding and own label, and in-store experience. These are all considerably more important than five years ago.

But perhaps even more important than price transparency is the fact retailers now have to recognise their broader responsibilities to society, whether it’s their role as an employer, as a purchaser of products both locally and in developing economies, and of course the part they can play in combating climate change.

Retailers are in a unique position to both educate consumers and help change their behaviour, challenge and improve practices in their own supply chain, and put their own house in order where there’s a formidable ‘to do’ list – store construction methods, energy consumption, packaging, deliveries, waste, returns and so on. Companies like Co-op, M&S, B&Q and many others have had a strong sustainability focus for 20 years or more, but they and many others are rightly redoubling their efforts.

In the face of such pressures on the sector it’s a privilege to participate in the Retail Week Awards judging, where we consider and showcase the very best efforts of the industry including those associated with sustainability. Despite, or perhaps because of, the greatest rate of change ever, the shortlisted companies have shown inspiring creativity and innovation in adapting to the challenges. The Retail Week Awards 2020 takes place at The Grosvenor House on 12 March 2020.

Alan Giles, Associate Fellow, Saïd Business School, University of Oxford

[Retail Insider is a media partner of Retail Week Live]