‘Not a massive amount of help’: retailers give verdict on budget

Gary Grant, owner of toy chain The Entertainer, at a store in Shepherd's Bush. Show caption Gary Grant, owner of toy chain The Entertainer, at a store in Shepherd's Bush. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

The retail industry is the UK’s biggest private sector employer, providing three million jobs around the country. After a year in which Covid lockdowns hammered high streets but boosted online sales, we asked figures from across the industry to give their verdict on Wednesday’s budget.

The shop floor

Sarah Edmiston, customer service adviser in London DIY store The Tool Shop

Sarah Edmiston, who works at the Waterloo branch of The Tool Shop. Sarah Edmiston, who works at the Waterloo branch of The Tool Shop. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

“There wasn’t much in it for me personally but cancelling the fuel duty rise will help with travel tremendously. I drive most of the way to work and then get the train at the end. Fuel-wise, it is probably costing me an extra £13 a week at the moment.

“The increase in the minimum wage [from the 1 April it rises from £8.91 to £9.50 for those 23 and over] will help members of my team who are fairly new, but I have been working here for 18 years. It just feels, again, that if you have got money you are OK, but the average family is worst hit. We are not on minimum wage but not on such a great wage that we don’t feel the increase in fuel, food and utility costs. You are not getting anything at all, it is worrying.”

The warehouse

Andrew Prickett, warehouse worker for a major food retailer

Andrew Prickett, warehouse worker. Photograph: none

“I don’t think they have done enough on increasing that wage. I would like to see that touch at least £10,” he said pointing to impact of higher national insurance payments and increases in fuel and utility bills on household finances. He says the new taper relief on universal credit is “only a few coppers” in comparison to the £20-a-week cut to the benefit this month.

The delivery driver

Ed Cross, a courier for logistics company Hermes

Ed Cross, a self-employed delivery driver for Hermes, based in Whitby, North Yorkshire, UK. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

“The price of fuel at the moment is crippling couriers. We only get 25p a mile [from Hermes] and couriers have also been struggling to get fuel because of the shortages [at petrol stations]. During the pandemic fuel prices dropped and we were quids in, but now it is starting to hurt.”

He said the changes to universal credit would also be welcome, but were unlikely to offset the loss of the £20-a-week boost introduced during the pandemic. “A lot of couriers are worried about that £20,” he said.

“I’m sad for the high street as more and more people will shop online without the online sales tax. But when people shop online they need couriers.” He suggested this could boost the sector in the peak pre-Christmas season.

The family business

William Coe, managing director of family-run retail business Coe’s of Ipswich

William Coe, of Coe’s of Ipswich. Photograph: Paul Driver

“I don’t think the government has a plan to help the high street. The biggest disappointment is that they didn’t grasp the nettle on business rates. The chancellor said it would be irresponsible to scrap business rates but they need to be reformed and that’s been kicked down the road, which creates uncertainty.”

Coe, whose business has six shops in East Anglia and employs 140 people, said he understood the logic of raising the minimum wage but was concerned about the timing given the backdrop of inflation and the post-pandemic recovery. “People will have to put their prices up because their workforce isn’t suddenly going to become 6% more productive. Rates will make us better off compared to where we were pre-pandemic but the [higher] wage costs means the budget is broadly neutral for us.”

The mid-sized retailer

Gary Grant, chair of The Entertainer, the 172-store toyshop chain

Gary Grant, owner of toy chain The Entertainer, in his store at Westfield Centre in Shepherd’s Bush. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

“Overall I’m not sure there is a massive amount of help for retail here. The 50% cut on business rates is capped at £110,000. Our rates probably run to more than £6m so in effect this is just a 1.5% discount. With the rise of the internet retail sales have fallen and business rates have to be reviewed. The government refusing to [do so] is very poor.”

He suggested the failure to bring in an online sales tax was giving web rivals a “massive rates advantage” and failing to support physical stores which “bring something to the community” in local areas. “We need to make sure high streets are vibrant.”

The big supermarket

Kevin O’Byrne, finance director of Sainsbury’s group, which also owns Argos

Kevin O’Byrne, finance director of Sainsbury’s. Photograph: Piranha Photography/Piranha Photography/Sainsbury's

“Business rates are an outdated tax that is no longer fit for purpose. We welcome the freezing of the business rates multiplier and support for SMEs as well as the more regular rates valuations.

“We now need the government to build on this and redouble its efforts to fundamentally reform business rates and level the playing field between online and physical retail. Physical retailers are disproportionately burdened and large retailers are among the biggest employers on the UK’s high streets and across communities. With rising inflation, already thin margins are being stretched further by this outdated tax – restricting investment and growth.”

The landlord

Mark Williams, executive director of RivingtonHark, an asset manager focused on regenerating town and city centres

Mark Williams, of RivingtonHark. Photograph: none

“The only positive thing I can say is that it’s now cheaper for us to drown our sorrows while discussing business rates in the pub. The government says the new measures will help over 90% of retail, hospitality and leisure businesses and I can’t challenge them on that because I don’t have the makeup of that number.

“But the reality is towns and city centre are occupied by multiples [chains]. The maximum benefit they can gain is £110,000 which is a drop in the ocean compared to the millions or, in some cases, billions of pounds they pay. This is not a fair system and the budget didn’t help.

“Unfortunately, Amazon and other big online digital retailers benefit massively from paying virtually no tax compared to people like Primark, who have no online presence, and pay an extortionate amount of tax.”












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