After over three decades in retail, Dennis Williams has recently added the title of Scottish Grocers’ Federation President to his already impressive CV. Simon Walton caught up with the award-winning Premier retailer from Oxgangs in Edinburgh in the suitably influential surroundings of the members dining room at the Scottish Parliament to find out about his priorities for the two years of his tenure.
As most retailers that know him will be well aware, new SGF President Dennis Williams is a passionate advocate of the local retailing sector. After more than 32 years as the owner of Premier Broadway in Oxgangs in Edinburgh, it’s fair to say Dennis and wife Linda are among the best-known faces in the industry. “We are quite well known but I want to be clear that I’m not just about my own store or symbol group, or any symbol group – I’m about the whole convenience retail sector in Scotland.”
His enthusiasm for the task established, Dennis knows however that he has assumed the chain of office at a time when the climate for business has never been tougher – and it’s the matter of the rising costs of doing business that he sees as a priority for his two year tenure at the helm of SGF.
“Bank charges have always been a big thing for me,” he says. “I know that for my own business, banking money costs about £180 a month in charges. That could be a wage for someone. Utility companies are going to put their prices up again, which is a big burden on your business too.
“Another huge issue for retailers is commissions – and I’m going to name two of the companies: PayPoint and Camelot. I think especially nowadays with the constraints on businesses we need to look at this. The commission rate on PayPoint has fallen and on the National Lottery we’ve had no increase in 14 years. We have had a slight increase in scratch card commissions but I think that both of these companies need to look at that. However, I want to be positive and say we’re not here to shout and bawl, but we need to get around the table and put our points across. I see that as my role as president of the SGF.”
Dennis also intends to take up the challenge around the living wage. He says: “The national living wage is a massive strain on our sector just now. The extra cost for our own business from the first of April has been £8,000. That is a lot of money. On top of that, there’s auto-enrolment this year for pensions.”
Naturally, he supports the idea that staff deserve a reasonable wage but believes decisions to continually increase the minimum wage must be taken in a wider context.
“I’m all for giving someone a reasonable wage,” he says. “I have no issue with that at all. Of course I want someone to get a reasonable wage. The problem is, once again, the constraints placed on a small business with the overhead that this represents. I think the Scottish and Westminster Governments should be doing something about that. I think they’re being unrealistic, because if you look at the facts and figures, I know that staff hours are getting cut back, people are not getting replaced, and people who own businesses are needing to work longer hours.”
All of which relates to a lack of recognition of the value that the local retailing sector brings to the Scottish economy, believes Dennis. Local retailing outlets across the country provide regular employment for a massive number of people at a time where stability is being eroded in many other industries, he argues.
The upshot, he believes is that by making it more difficult for employers to take on new people, however well intentioned, the living wage is working against well meaning employers and into the hands of potentially less scrupulous employers.
The danger, says Dennis, of ‘casualising’ a greater percentage of the workforce is that it will lead to a loss of employment security for the staff and the erosion of the expertise and customer service that sits at the heart of the local retailing experience.
He says: “I’m in no doubt this is already happening in our sector. People are working in stores with less training, less commitment and less expertise. We can’t lose sight of the fact that people need a decent wage to work in the industry, but we need decisions to be made with an appreciation of the bigger picture and the commercial realities. In my tenure as president that’s what I see as my role and my duty to the members and everyone they employ.”
The key to success over the next two years for Dennis lies in communication. “We have to talk more,” he explains. “I want to get the SGF to sit down more, to communicate more, and present our case to everybody we need to speak to – suppliers, manufacturers, and other interested groups, because they’re under the same constraints and stresses as we are.”
A key development in opening up new lines of dialogue has been the establishment of the new Cross Party Group (CPG) on Independent Retailing at Holyrood. A long-standing advocate of getting closer to those that make the big decisions, Dennis sees the CPG as a great way of having the industry’s voice heard at the top table.
“The CPG represents a great opportunity now for everybody involved with the sector to really come together and have a big voice in the Parliament,” he says. “We’ve never had a unified voice in this arena before, and I don’t think it was in any way overstating the case to say that the establishment of the CPG was a great day in history for the sector in Scotland.”
The CPG offers a unique opportunity to ensure that more and more MSPs are made aware of the often over-looked scale and importance of the local retailing sector in Scotland.
Critical now will be ensuring the CPG delivers concrete results and actions that directly benefit the industry. “One of the good things that the SGF has done in the set-up of the CPG is to get sub-groups established looking at specific challenges our industry faces and I think that will be very helpful. It will make it easier to get across the important issues and to help politicians more deeply understand our sector. The more they understand the sector, the more they will make the right decisions and for the right reasons.”
And make no mistake, every MSP in Holyrood is touched by the industry. At the recent SGF/SLR exhibition within Holyrood, practically every politician to drop by the stand admitted that they had used their local retailer to gauge opinion in their ward or constituency.
“The CPG is the ideal vehicle to take that grassroots connection and move it on to another level,” says Dennis. “It’s an opportunity to turn get SGF members’ opinions and observations relayed into the decision-making process”
Dennis also cites the recently published Scottish Local Shop Report as another good example of a solid tool the industry can make use of when communicating with politicians and other influencers.
“It’s a hugely important document for the sector,” he says. “It draws together and collates a wealth of facts and figures that demonstrate the size of convenience retailing in Scotland, and how valuable it is to community economies and the national economy at large. It puts the industry into the sort of language that politicians can readily understand.”
It’s clear that Dennis has his work cut out for the next couple of years. Addressing commercial partners over cost issues and collaborations, seeking to engage with government in Edinburgh and London, and putting the convenience sector in the spotlight are all on his agenda. But he declares himself ready to tackle the role with the same vigour that’s made his Oxgangs store a genuine community asset for over 30 years.
“I’m so passionate about the trade,” says Dennis. “I want to make an impact in the areas I’ve just discussed and I want to visit as many shops in Scotland as possible. Symbols, independents, large and small shops. I want everyone involved in this industry to realise that they really are part of something very big, and they have a big part to play, well beyond their own front door.”
Practicing what he preaches, Dennis is kicking off his tenure with a ‘grand tour’ of Scotland, meeting as many retailers as possible up and down the country.
“If we’re going to ask retailers to engage with the decision-making processes that affects their businesses, their livelihoods and their communities, then I have to get out there and prove that we’re just as passionate about engaging with them too,” he concludes.
So don’t be surprised if you get a knock on your door some time soon…