Any regular visitor to a supermarket - or any shop - over the past five years will have noticed a shocking rise in the price of many items - for a variety of reasons. The International Monetary Fund is pointing the finger straight at profiteering retailers; retailers flatly deny this, pointing out issues with the supply chain; the Government – without having the firmest grip on the situation – is bizarrely blaming wage increases, to which workers claim ‘what wage increases?’
So everyone has the hump with everyone else.
In the middle of all this, the British Retail Consortium, representing the UK’s retailers, and the customers they serve, is trying to find a redress to the balance between this accusation of profiteering and customer needs. As Dynamic now points out, Helen Dickinson, the CEO, clearly has her work cut out…
Helen Dickinson OBE was born in 1966 in Surrey. She was educated at schools in New Zealand between 1973 and 1978, and The Kings School, Ottery St Mary, Devon before attending Kingston Polytechnic.
Her first job was as a sales assistant at a high street chemist. After joining KPMG she ultimately rose to the position of Head of Retail, working for the company for 23 years. She was appointed CEO of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), having landed that role over ten years ago, in January 2013. She received an OBE for services to the retail industry in 2016
When Dickinson left her role at KPMG, the UK retail industry was relatively stable. Consumer confidence and retail sales were improving after shaking off the last remnants of the global financial crisis from five years earlier.
Dealing with Covid
As CEO of the British Retail Consortium, Dickinson was one of the people to attend government briefings during the Covid-19 pandemic, where she urged people to shop responsibly after panic buying led to a shortage of food in supermarkets.
She has a thankless balancing act between being a voice piece for the UK retail industry, for consumers, and talking with a Government which has had to deal with many international challenges over the past few years, not all of which have been dealt with that successfully.
During one particularly feisty online exchange regarding Covid between then Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng, and representatives of 70 major retail companies (who dismissed Kwarteng’s demeanour as ‘rude’) in January 2021, she had to tread a careful line between the demands of her members, and the diplomatic role required to be CEO of the British Retail Consortium when dealing with the Government.
News had got out that the exchange was heated, and that Kwarteng had behaved in a dismissive, belligerent manner. Dickinson sought to calm the waters by stating her disappointment that details of a hitherto confidential meeting had become public.
IMF and the profiteering accusations
Given her role at the BRC, she is compelled to step in and defend the supermarkets - and other retailers – from criticism being levelled at them, especially accusations of profiteering. After the International Monetary Fund placed a large slice of the blame for double-digit inflation on excessive and unnecessary retailer price rises, combined with the Government weighing in with its misguided finger-pointing, she launched a robust takedown of the narrative coming retailers’ way.
“The Government must end its scapegoating of retailers,” Dickinson wrote in a recent blog. “I remember conversations with retail leaders seeing inflationary pressures coming even before the war in Ukraine. Labour shortages, freight issues, dislocation of supply caused by the pandemic, Brexit frictions, a weakening pound, rises in the New Living Wage, the impact of climate changes on commodities and harvests... the reasons to expect rising costs were obvious.”
In pointing to supermarkets expanding their ‘value’ ranges, and quoting a Competition & Mergers Authority report, she reasoned the evidence was clear that retailers were exonerated for their price rises.
In more than once instance, Dickinson has been infuriated by Brexit. Not so much by the vote and the subsequent political bile that followed; more the execution of Brexit, with uncertainty, doubt, concern and lack of clarity or information coming from the one place that needed to calm the stormy waters - the Government.
Indeed, in a universe of ubiquitous finger-pointing, she has more than once fired off her ire at ex-Prime Minister Boris Johnson for his behaviour, and lack of consultation, in the lead up to the UK’s exit from the EU.
In that regard, Dickinson is probably on the right side of the argument here. At a time when all facets of UK industry – especially retail – needed clarity, little was forthcoming.
Not that that really helps. It’s fairly evident Dickinson – and the BRC - are having to fight the ‘blame’ narrative on several fronts. This has made her job so much harder; certainly in comparison to the relatively rosy industry she inherited responsibility for ten years ago.
As well as Brexit, the BRC under Dickinson’s tenure has had other battles with the government. The biggest one – aside from the effects of Covid on the retail industry and its consumers – has been business rates, the controversial property tax that has become the bane of retailers since its revaluation at the start of the 2017/18 fiscal year.
The pace of reform has been slow, or too slow for the BRC’s liking. Following the Chancellor’s Budget of 2023, Dickinson was moved to respond, “The Government took an essential step towards longer term reform of the broken Business Rates system by the scrapping of downwards phasing of transitional relief. Yet the need for Business Rates reform is far from over, and the changes made in the budget are a far cry from the fundamental reform promised in 2019.”
“Any meaningful plan for the future of our town and city centres must have wholesale reform of our Business Rates system at its heart.”
All the while inflation remains higher than previously forecast, uncertainty will continue within some, if not most, parts of the economy. In being presented with these challenges, Helen Dickinson OBE, in her first ten years as CEO at the British Retail Consortium, has evidently undertaken her role with diplomacy, knowledge, integrity, tenacity and care, becoming an important champion for all aspects of the retail industry.
BRC's raison d'être
As the go-to trade association for UK retail businesses, our purpose is to make a positive difference to the retail industry and the customers it serves, today and in the future.
We tell the story of retail, work with our members to drive positive change and use our expertise and influence to create an economic and policy environment that enables retail businesses to thrive and consumers to benefit.
We do this in a way that delivers value back to our members, justifying their investment in the BRC. This membership comprises over 200 major retailers – whether operating physical stores, multichannel or pureplay online – plus thousands of smaller, independent retailers through a number of niche retail Trade Associations that are themselves members of BRC.
Retail is an exciting, dynamic and diverse industry. It is a driving force in our economy, a hotbed of innovation and the UK’s largest private sector employer. Retailers touch the lives of millions of people every day, supporting the vibrancy of the communities they operate in. However, the industry is going through a period of profound change, with technology transforming how people shop, costs increasing, and growth in consumer spending slowing.
Retailing will continue to evolve and advance. Online retail will continue to grow as retailers invest in new emerging technologies; there will be fewer stores and those stores remaining will offer new experiences; there will be fewer, but better jobs and a career in retail in the future will be very different to today.
We are committed to ensuring the industry thrives through this period of transformation.