SGF making ‘good progress despite challenging conditions’

Pete Cheema

It’s been another tough year for the local retailing sector in Scotland with another wave of challenges, but SGF has been working hard on behalf of the trade and has made ‘good progress’ says CEO Pete Cheema.

by Antony Begley

There’s no denying that it’s been another very tough year for the Scottish local retailing sector as it wrestles with the latest wave of challenges.

Costs are still rising, legislative pressures are intensifying and consumer spending has been dampened by a number of factors, not least Brexit – so it’s never been more important that the industry pulls together in the same direction.

“It’s vital that our sector is united and speaks with a single voice,” says Scottish Grocers’ Federation (SGF) Chief Executive Pete Cheema. “Convenience retail is a huge industry in Scotland, providing jobs for more than 40,000 jobs for people. However, it is by nature extremely fragmented, with thousands of independent businesses. The only way we can truly have our voices heard at the top tables is by speaking as one – and that’s exactly why the role that SGF plays is arguably more important than it has ever been in the 100 years of its existence.”

Challenging environment

The challenges that have made this year so tough are many and varied, and they keep coming thick and fast, as all retailers are only too aware: the rocketing costs of doing business, Track & Trace, Deposit Return, Minimum Unit Pricing, tobacco and alcohol legislation, pensions, retail violence and crime, Making Tax Digital, the list goes on and on.

“It’s easy for retailers to feel daunted when they wake up every morning and consider the mountains they are having to climb just to keep their business profitable so that they can continue to serve communities the length and breadth of Scotland, but by working together we can tackle all of these challenges – and that’s exactly what we are doing at SGF,” says Cheema. “And we are making significant progress.”

One very recent example of that progress was the inclusion of an exemption for smaller local retailers in the Scottish Government’s draft Deposit Return Regulations.

“We were very pleased to see that all the work we put into lobbying the Scottish Government paid off in the form of that exemption which will be critically important for many small Scottish retailers, I am sure,” he says. “It demonstrates that the relationship we have developed over the last few years with Holyrood is reaping rewards.

“We will continue to lobby, however, as SGF remains strongly opposed to the inclusion of glass within the Deposit Return scheme. Its inclusion would be bad for the scheme overall and for convenience stores in particular. Glass is heavy, liable to break and takes up considerable space. It will also drastically reduce the number of stores which can use automated take back.

“The convenience sector needs a united front on saying no to glass. I would urge all retailers to participate in the consultation which runs until 10 December and can be accessed at:”

Key to SGF’s improved, closer relationship with Scotland’s most important politicians is the Cross-Party Group on Independent Convenience Stores which meets regularly in the Scottish Parliament building. Here MSPs from all major parties debate and discuss issues currently affecting the trade. The forum ensures that the concerns of the local retailing sector are heard at the very top table and, having attended many of these meetings, it’s hugely encouraging to see such a solid turnout by retailers, wholesalers and suppliers.

Critical topics such as women in retail, DRS, retail crime and under-age sales prevention have been discussed so far this year.

Networking key

As well as its lobbying activity, SGF has also remained committed to increasing the levels of engagement it has with retailers, wholesalers and suppliers through a busy programme of events all year round, something Cheema feels is vital to bringing the trade together.

He comments: “We have worked hard over the last couple of years building and growing our annual programme of events because we feel it’s a very important way of bringing the whole supply chain together to talk in-depth about important issues, challenges and opportunities. Our annual Crime Seminar has proven very popular and influential, as has the Mini-Summit which allows us to tackle a wider array of topics. We have also introduced new events to embrace fresh opportunities like vaping, a category that has massive potential for local retailers in Scotland.

“And of course, the most important event in our calendar is the annual SGF Conference which takes place later this month. I would urge everyone to make sure they get along for what has become a highlight of the annual calendar in the trade.”

Cheema has scored another coup by once again succeeding in recruiting Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon as headline speaker for the event. Given the current political turmoil, it should be fascinating to hear what she has to say.

Investing in the sector

SGF has also been instrumental in securing more Scottish government funding programme aimed at developing the important food-to-go offerings within Scotland’s convenience stores. A total of £300,000 is being made available to the sector, with successful applicants receiving an award on a match-funding basis up to a maximum individual grant of £7,500.

“I know that Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy Fergus Ewing MSP believed the first phase of the Food-to-go fund was very effective in supporting small retailers throughout Scotland to entice customers into their stores and generate a new income stream,” says Cheema. “So it’s great news that the SGF-administered fund has been both renewed and increased, which will help even more retailers provide people with access to quality, locally sourced and healthy food in addition to providing an important focus on reducing waste.”

Cheema’s commitment to ensuring the entire supply chain works closer together in Scotland extends to actively seeking to grow membership of SGF among key suppliers. “We need the support of suppliers to allow us to continue the vital work we do on behalf of the whole trade and I’m delighted that we’ve been able to recruit many new members this year from right across the sector including JUUL Labs, Border Biscuits, Heineken, Loomis and Morrisons.”

As 2019 begins to draw to a close and Brexit looks set to come to some sort of a head, it appears that the challenging times will be here for a while yet, but Cheema remains optimistic and upbeat. He concludes: “As long as we can all continue working closely together, we can ensure that local retailing in Scotland will continue to be a vibrant, profitable sector and the millions of people across the country that rely on our stores will remain well served. Local retailers have long been the very heart of Scotland’s communities and we fully intend to keep it that way.”