THE BLOG

Retail's a Cracking Industry

08/09/2014 11:08 BST | Updated 05/11/2014 10:59 GMT

We are on the eve of an historical vote in Scotland. Whether yes or no, the future of the country will be different.

Many have spoken of the effects the vote will have on the economy .... on the energy sector, on manufacturing, on farming, on financial services. Most recently, on tourism.

However, few commentators have shared views on the retail industry. What impact, if any, will independence have on retail businesses? If the status quo of the Union remains, the assumption must be that little will change. If the Yes camp are successful, how will that impact - especially on the major retailers who will suddenly become cross-border traders with uncertainty over currency exchanges, potential import duties and legal paperwork that is a long way from being decided? One rule in life is that political change seldom equals price cuts. Having lived in Greece at their time of entry to the EU, that was a very stark realisation.

Ultimately, retail is driven by customers, and if customers want to buy products and services, then companies will be foolhardy not to meet that demand. That may be a simplistic view. But I like things to be simple.

Over the last five years, we have witnessed many government-led projects and initiatives - north and South of the border - purporting to be the 'saving of the high street'. They have (mostly) been window dressing, trying to convince an industry squeezed by an antiquated business rates system that politicians are handling the situation. Don't get me wrong, some politicians are making a difference. They are grasping the need for digital and social engagement. The recent 'Great British High Street' campaign is a case in point where High Streets are engaging as never before. However, 'business rates' remain the elephant in the room - a topic no party of any hue dare raise its head above the parapet to discuss in any serious debate.

As long as the elephant remains, we can't wait for politicians - whether in Westminster or Holyrood - to embrace change. The sun will rise on tomorrow and retailers across the country will open their doors in an attempt to make you and I spend our hard-earned money on 'stuff'. That has always been the case ... regardless of who holds the keys to Number 10 or who sits on the First Minister's chair 'neath Arthur's Seat.

My dread is inaction: any politician's worst crime. Spout forth all you like with promises of a new horizon, but if it is just words? Shame on the perpetrators.

The real shame is that much can be done for the retail industry, but few 'get it'. Whether small independent craft shops or multi-national businesses wanting distribution plants to speed delivery to the outer reaches of our isles - the opportunity exists at a local level, at a community level, to improve engagement with the customer. And the delightful truth is, politicians need play no part. Sure, they could help. They know they could help ... but party politics is a more important game for them.

And so it relies on imaginative folk at a local level with get up and go. Thankfully, we have those aplenty, and it matters not one jot whether they are Scottish, English, Welsh, Irish or from Timbuktu. What matters is that they care for their community and work hard for the businesses and customers in it.

Over the same five years - through the passing of various government reports and recommendations - I have seen towns, cities and BIDs start to grasp the nettle. Please note: no thistles or roses.

They have realised that relevant engagement through digital and social media connects their community as never before. They have understood that, regardless of pilots and white papers, real action makes things happen.

In Scotland, Perth's City Centre team are now sharing content from more than 130 businesses each and every day with customers hungry for promotional offers, local news and information on the city's upcoming events. At the opposite end of the UK, Taunton, is looking to adopt the same SOCIALiSTREET service to best engage with a diverse range of businesses - to build a social following that will attract more visitors to the historic capital of Somerset. Head across to London, and the capital's largest BID - Fitzrovia - is promoting businesses from breakfast to bedtime, engaging with those who live, work and play in their area.

Back in Scotland, the latest to adopt SOCIALiSTREET is Kirkcaldy, the town that made recent headlines due to a few idiots throwing eggs. To make an omelette, to create something worthwhile, you have to beak eggs. It is a great shame the media picked up on the antics of a handful of nutters rather than the hard work of the town's Business Improvement District who are making real changes - creating something new and exciting. Kirkcaldy4All has adopted the same path - engaging with businesses to ensure content relevant to customers in and around Kirkcaldy is shared - day-in, day-out - via the channels that customers choose: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest ...

I make no bones of my belief that Scotland should remain in the Union. As an Englishman with Scottish, Irish, Welsh and French ancestors - my affinity is with a country that has been a beacon of light in a world where darkness threatens so many. That said, I totally respect those who oppose my view. One of our greatest combined achievements has been to promote and uphold the right of free speech.

When we wake on the 19th September - whatever the result, as sure as eggs is eggs - every community faces the same opportunities and threats. And they all have the ability to deliver more for those within it. Sadly, that drive is unlikely to come from our politicians. As some cities, towns and BIDs are now proving, 'bottom up' not 'top down' works. Successful retailers have been at the very heart of our communities for generations. They will continue to be so whether the Union Jack or Saltire flies above town halls. I applaud all those making a difference. More power to you.