COMMENT: Easing business rates is welcome, but is it too little, too late?

Reduced business rates announced in the recent Budget are a drop in the ocean, writes Institute of Customer Service chief executive Jo Causon. So what more can be done to save the UK high street?

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The recent announcement to reduce small retailers’ business rates by a third in the government’s Autumn Budget is a step in the right direction.

Within a relentlessly turbulent retail environment, independent retailers are finally, it appears, getting some much-needed breathing space. The reduction in business rates will be welcomed by small businesses, as they are afforded the chance to utilise extra capital to their advantage. A natural starting point will be to reinvest in staff and stores in order to remain competitive – both in the short and long term.

However, it feels a shame that a similar break is not being provided to some of the bigger high street brands that are currently struggling. Offering this incentive frees up investment to back much-needed customer service initiatives – investing in both staff and appropriate technology so that they can capture imaginations, creating relationships and loyalty with customers that will deliver return on investment.

Also, though selectively reducing business rates offers hope, it is a drop in the ocean. There is scope for much more to be done to help the high street continue to be a place where communities come together.

In our increasingly fragmented world, it is critical that consumers have choice, and, for many, this means their brand of choice being accessible to them on their local high street. The proposed initiative to fill empty units with community hubs would work to address both social and economic issues facing our town centres – as people come together, and surely shop on their way home.

We should react now in order to build on the Budget announcement and maintain the momentum of hope for UK retail. Taking steps towards creating an environment where retailers can offer a destination-led experience which provides a combination of bricks and mortar and online feels right.

While the lion’s share of onus is on government and retailers to turn things around, the influence we have as consumers to support our favourite brands should not be dismissed. We have the power, and the choice, to offer much-needed custom by shopping in-store rather than just online, and this is exactly what we should do if we want their continued presence on our local high streets.

Research from the Institute of Customer Service shows customers are willing to pay more for better service. “Human touch” factors such as a friendly conversation at the till and honest advice can increase spend by 42 per cent. Employees should be asking their employers for training to develop themselves within a changing employment landscape. Retailers would also be wise to utilise increased automation to improve productivity amongst customer service staff, who are now able to focus on providing a high quality problem-solving and relationship-based service.

With improvements in customer service worth £81 billion annually to UK GDP through repeat custom and recommendation, we also know for sure that service is an economic issue. Where customer needs are not central to boardroom thinking, sales performance suffers. These are conversations which should be happening now, before more hard-pressed department stores join the growing list of high street closures.

Reducing business rates may be welcome, but by itself could be too little, too late. All high street stores – big and small – should be encouraged, and actively incentivised, to make the changes and investment needed to adapt to the new retail reality, which involves combining on-line and off-line with an experience that is personalised and appropriate to the individual.

Jo Causon is the CEO of The Institute of Customer Service

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