COMMENT The duality of the effects of any crisis are often illustrated by invoking the view that the Chinese word for crisis is made up of two characters signifying “danger” and “opportunity”. It is also is borne out in people’s behaviours; contrast the sharp-elbowed panic buyers of March with the continued dedication of our public sector workers, led by our healthcare professionals.
The much-respected retail expert Doug Stephens of Retail Prophet, when asked to consider consumer behaviour post-pandemic has pointed to terror management theory, which suggests that consumers will do similar – either hunker down, save, and hoard or splurge.
This polarisation can be seen in the retail property industry too, with some behaviours and language amplifying the worst stereotypes of money-grabbing landlords and feckless tenants, coming in stark relief to the amazing spirit of collaboration being shown by the leading industry bodies of Revo, British Property Federation and British Retail Consortium. By coming together, they have a seat at the highest tables of government and are consulted with and listened to because their opinions carry the weight of the leading businesses and thousands of members that they represent.
Which camp you sit in, to my mind, is dependent on whether you come from the mindset of “I want to protect what’s mine” or of “only by working together can we fix this” and, boy, is there a lot to fix.
I am also a subscriber to the opinion that Covid-19 hasn’t caused any new problems in the retail industry. As Twitter put it: “Covid made 2030 happen in 2020”, or as that well-known champion of the property-owning class, Lenin, put it: “There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen”.
Given this speed of change, and the fact that we already had structural problems, it is an impossible task for any grouping of industry leaders, however powerful, to fix this or even wring concessions from government that will please many, if indeed any, of the loudest voices making special pleading.
So if meaningful short-term fixes are beyond our esteemed industry leaders or indeed government, what is the best we can hope for from this crisis?
The answer is simple: change, or better, profound change.
The Royal Society of Arts has identified three pre-conditions for meaningful post-crisis change (which I stumbled across in a podcast with the ever-excellent James Timpson).
- That there are grounds for change/demand for change pre crisis
- The crisis reinforces the need for change
- That in the short period to instigate change there are proposals for change to be taken forward
Based on what I am reading and hearing as I overcome my own health crisis, things are looking good. This is exemplified by the open and constructive debate around turnover rents, as highlighted by Mark Burlton’s recent EG article. And while turnover rents are no panacea, the fact that owners and occupiers are prepared to consider what happens all over the world and in the outlet sector here, means that the RSA’s criteria are being met. There are, of course, further issues around transparency, planning, taxation, security of tenure, etc, that need to be addressed.
What is missing is the mechanism to drive this change.
The collaboration of the major industry groups is a precursor to this, and I am fairly confident we will reach a better and quicker solution if we take a proposal to government as one.
As such, I would welcome not just a focus on short-term solutions to symptoms of a deeper malaise that predate Covid-19, but swift and concrete suggestions around a process for agreeing and driving long term change that is so desperately needed.
Given the recent VE day celebrations, it is perhaps pertinent to leave the last words to Winston Churchill: “Never let a good crisis go to waste”.