Liz Lawson, managing director of south-west housewares chain Lawsons, has written an open letter to the next British government:
“As a retailer of 25 years standing, I know that retail is changing faster today than it ever has. My business has been trading for 115 years and like many businesses our age, we have faced two World Wars, the three-day week in the 1970s, pedestrianisation which took away our trade customers, the rise of the category killers in the 1980s, and now online trading. We have had to constantly evolve to survive and thrive.
“We are doing everything within our power to stay in business and to support our 70 staff. As well as having bricks-and-mortar sites with loyal local custom, we get involved with local events and community groups. We also trade online; have a social media following, a blog and a loyalty card with a growing membership with whom we communicate regularly.
“We have faced many challenges and survived. But our biggest challenge now is that our government – both local and national – is not reacting to the onslaught of internet trading and its effect on the high street. And because of this, we are being squashed between a rock and a hard place.
“Take car parking and delivery charges. Now customers can shop from the comfort of their own homes, the city and town centres are not the destinations they once were. You do not have to ‘go into town’ to do your Christmas shopping or track down that thing you saw on TV last night. So why do local councils insist on charging premium rates for parking and conversely allow some retailers to not charge for parking or delivery at all? In our local city, the council have allowed two out-of-town retail parks to open and no parking charge is required. We already pay the highest rates. Is it right that our customers are charged a premium to visit us as well?
“Environmentally, can it be right that car parking and deliveries are free? Similar to charging for plastic bags, should there be an environmental tax on all car parking and deliveries? This money could then be used to subsidise public transport, and improve cycleways and footpaths to encourage people to leave their cars at home, for the good of everyone.
“Then there’s the issue of tax. We all know the argument about whether business rates are fair and proportionate but really the problem goes much deeper. If you, our government, cannot find a way to properly and fairly tax those companies and internet giants who trade inside the UK but operate outside it, you will find that the largest retailer in the land will not be paying into the system which supports our everyday life, our schools, our hospitals, our roads and infrastructure. Furthermore, as more of us go out of business, who will support the local jobs and local community, such as sports clubs, amateur dramatics, churches… and even the Christmas lights?!
“In this run-up to the general election, I don’t think there is a party who hasn’t promised a rise in the National Living Wage – and whilst I don’t dispute my team are worth every penny, it doesn’t mean that the business can afford it.
“It’s easy to promise someone else’s money but the reality is that far from decreasing poverty, it probably increases it. To manage this cost increase, what happens is that we reduce staff hours, close earlier and have shorter shifts.
“Other businesses outsource work and get people working in the ‘Gig’ economy where they have to work longer for less and do not have the safety of sick pay, holiday pay and pensions.
“We cannot increase our prices or profit to pay for this unrealistic cost increase, as we have to be competitive against the internet giants who are not fairly taxed. Are sales are not increasing to pay for it, for all the reasons above. If the National Living Wage rises to £10 or more, it’s likely that many businesses like ours will have to close, as we will no longer be able to produce a profit.
“Succession is an important part of a family business; I am the fourth generation of our family to run Lawsons. However, succession does not need to be just via your relations. Passing on a successful business helps the employees and the community to thrive. Due to the current retail environment, many good businesses are just closing because no one wants to buy them.
“Starting a business is incredibly difficult and it takes time to work out what works – not only trading but the many other parts that make a business run smoothly – and this is learnt through time and experience.
“Most new start-ups fail within three years and that’s why longstanding businesses are so important. They provide long term jobs and careers, and support families to thrive. They support other businesses, local communities, friendships and much more.
“This year I’ve seen far too many long term businesses – both national and independent – fail, and with them goes knowledge, experience and community (and other businesses are damaged too). Once a business is gone it cannot be remade. It is gone forever: another empty shop on the high street.
“We are a nation of shopkeepers; we are one of the largest employment sectors in the country. So I call upon you, the new government, to do something substantial to support your retailers, save your high streets and keep Britain trading:
- Properly and fairly tax companies, trading inside but operating outside the UK;
- Introduce a car park and delivery environment tax;
- Support cheaper and better public transport, along with better cycleways and footpaths to make town and city centres more accessible;
- Before you increase the National Living Wage, think carefully about whether it will actually benefit people – or simply put them out of a job or push them into the ‘Gig’ economy;
- Successful businesses mean a successful Britain.”
*Lawsons is a family-owned independent business based in south Devon that operates four stores at Plymouth, Ivybridge, Tavistock and Totnes that offer ‘essentials for home living’.