An immense effort from forecourt retailers: Minister Damien English

An immense effort from forecourt retailers: Minister Damien English

Forecourt workers were ‘immense’ in the way they stepped up to serve their communities throughout the pandemic, according to the Minister for Business, Employment and Retail.

In an exclusive interview with IFCR, Damien English TD pays tribute to the vital role forecourts played at the height of the pandemic when many businesses and offices were forced to close – and reveals that a new Action Plan will shortly be brought forward to support the retail sector in the long term.

“I would always try to stress this at any event I do with convenience retailers and the forecourt sector, they’ve been immense in looking after their communities and the service they provided right throughout Covid,” he tells IFCR.

“When they were allowed they kept their doors open and tried to use every way they could to try to reach their customers of all ages, through deliveries to online services through to keeping their shops open for longer hours.

“Their teams of people went to great lengths and as a member of the government I want to recognise that through your own publication – I think it’s really, really important that we do that.”

Call of duty

Minister English says retailers went beyond the call of duty to reach out to customers by getting involved in the Government’s Community Call initiative, set up in each county to provide solutions to protect vulnerable groups and individuals.

“A lot of the members were involved in coordinating with the local authorities in each county to reach their customers. They worked an awful lot with the sports clubs and volunteers to reach customers in different ways at different times over the last couple of years, and I want to recognise that,” he said.

Convenience retailers also became a vital source of information for the government during those times, feeding back to the government via the Retail Forum, he says.

“Even in the last couple of months when there was pressure on the supply of the antigen test, the sector again stepped up and was able to provide much needed supply to anybody who needed them and that was an immense challenge in itself.

“A lot of pressure was on them, they had reduced turnover in many cases, they had increased costs but they still did their best to reach out to everybody and support and follow all the guidance and advice from government and from the Department of Health, even though it came at quite a cost and inconvenience. Business owners and certainly the retail sector really beyond a doubt played their part.”

A mixed year

2021 was a mixed year for the sector, with retailers facing particular difficulties with Covid early in the year but an improving outlook as businesses opened up from March onwards,, Minister English says..

“Overall, it’s been a quite successful busy year for the sector, slightly down on 2020 overall but up on 2019. I think this will show that, even with Covid, we’re an increasing population,” he says.

“There’s a lot in the retail sector to be hopeful about for the future, because Ireland is growing and more and more people are working and living here. It’s a sector that will continue to expand and grow, and I think 2021 will prove that, even though a difficult year trying to manage Covid, it was still a busy year.”

However retailers still face tricky conditions due to trying to protect staff and customers, deal with Covid and cope with numerous staff members being off because of sickness or close contacts.

“Certainly in the last six weeks with Omicron, that became a major issue for the retail sector trying to make sure they had enough staff on a daily basis,” Minister English says.

“Overall the majority would say they’re looking to the future and hoping to get back to normal trade. I think from the last week in January, looking ahead it should be a positive year.

“With the remote working changes, that has affected the footfall in a lot of our cities, that moves out to the regions and to a lot of more of our rural areas, so it does affect traffic flows and movement of people. But I think it’s beginning to settle down and we’ll see where that goes over the year.”

Staffing challenges

Recruitment and sourcing supplies have been a challenge, not just because of the Covid but also because of the significant challenges Brexit has posed for the sector.

“While the sector is still employing more than 300,000 people, over the year quite a lot would have been on the Enhanced Illness Benefits at some stage. Numbers as high as 80,000 in the sector would have been out at some stage on the various benefits,” Minister English says.

“Trying to keep staff has been an issue that comes up quite a lot, access to staff and assembling of teams. That’s an issue for Covid but it’s also going to be an issue looking forward as well, having enough people with the skills who are able to work.

“I know from talking to people in the sector, trying to keep the supplies on the shelves and keep pace with that – while they could get everything, to have it in time and to have everything on the shelves was a major, major challenge.”

Recruitment drive

The government is keen to focus on recruitment problems as the country comes out of Covid and into the recovery and growth phase, Minister English said.

“There are two issues there – through three of our departments, the Department of Education, my own department, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, and also the Department of Social Protection, there are a range of schemes that we operate in conjunction with the retail sector – through Skillnets, through our Education and Training Boards, to assist with the upskilling of existing staff, to assist with training new staff, and there are a lot of various supports and subsidies through our Pathways to Work policy which is a policy belonging to the Department for Social Protection,” he said.

“I would urge a lot of people in this sector to look through that document to engage with our Department of Social Protection to get assistance for taking on new staff, taking staff off the live register, staff going off the PUP payments – there are supports to transition for both employee and employer.”

The sector also wrestled with absenteeism due to staff falling sick or testing positive for Covid.

“It’s not as bad now, but it was certainly very difficult coming through Christmas and the early weeks of January when there was strong health advice here for close contacts to isolate and remain at home, and that put serious pressure on the whole sector,” Minister English says.

“Definitely from a forecourt and convenience point of view, but even from wholesalers and right throughout the system, there was a shortage of staff and many told me that they had to reduce their hours or close certain days or just they were left waiting for products.

Learnings from Covid

“Hopefully we’re through the worst of Covid and I do think we’ve learned a lot as a country and so have our employers. We saw so many of our retailers in the sector going online and bringing their business online so I want to work with them as they continue to develop that online offering and the digitisation of our business, and that will take some of the pressures off staffing levels as well.

“There’s a lot of opportunity but also a difficult couple of years ahead of us as we manage the cost base and manage the labour shortage.”

Retailers are also concerned about the potential hit to the bottom line from new minimum wage and sickness pay levels.

“Certainly, when you’re employing 10, 15, 20 staff, that can knock a few thousand euros in a minimum wage increase off your profit at the end of the day and it’s hard for a small business to recoup that,” the minister says.

“But we’re trying to get the balance right in terms of making sure that work always pays and it’s worth people’s while going to work. We’re trying to get that balanced, fair sustainable rate for low paid workers but also one that doesn’t have a negative impact for employers or competitiveness because we don’t want to lose jobs either.”

National living wage

Some 40% of people on minimum wage work in retail, which is why the retail sector must be consulted when setting the national living wage, he says.

“We have a good online relationship with RGDATA, Retail Ireland, Retail Excellence and CSNA on our forum, constantly feeding us information and representing the case. I’m conscious as minister for retail that wage increases are putting pressure on businesses and we’re all trying to find other ways to support businesses in other directions and other ways to help take some of that impact away – but we do also have to recognise that there is an increase in the cost of living and wages are rising to that level too.

“Again going back to digitisation and adaptation to climate change, it’s important that we’re finding new ways to constantly improve our offering, constantly improve effectiveness of our business and reduce cost as much as we can.

“There are tricky times ahead – the opportunities are there in terms of growth and access to customers, but we have to be constantly striving to reduce costs to be able to handle some of those costs that we’re not in control of, like energy costs.”

Future support

The Government has supported workers and businesses throughout the two years of Covid with initiatives such as wage subsidies, the online retail scheme and the loan guarantee, Mr English says.

But he also wants to look at the long term, which is why his Department has commissioned a retail study, The Future of Retail which is being carried forward by KPMG Analytics and is expected to come back in the next month with a list of suggestions and options for sector support.

“We have to identify the future trends, the opportunities and the challenges in line with our aims here as a country, under our Town Centres First initiative, our Night Time Economy policy, our climate policy, our digitisation agenda,” he says.

“So what I’m looking for now out of that retail study is that we have a set of recommendations that we can take into a Retail Action Plan to be implemented over a period of time to assist the retail sector to grow and develop and to digitise and transform and avail of all the opportunities. I can see through the online trading schemes that there’s an opportunity there for our retailers to take on and win new customers from abroad as well through their online offering.”

Apart from costs, the biggest challenge being reported by the retail sector is sourcing talent, he says.

“We will develop new ways, new courses, apprenticeship programmes, traineeship programmes to match a lot of the in-house training that’s going on,” he says.

“I recognise in this sector there’s quite a lot of in-house training but we want to put a national standard on that, making retail more and more attractive. And part of the changes around minimum wage, sick pay legislation… all that puts a lot of pressure on businesses, but it’s also trying to develop the careers and the quality of the jobs and that will help us with the competition for talent as well.”

To read the full interview in Ireland’s Forecourt & Convenience Retailer yearbook, click HERE.