This year’s conference highlighted the importance of customer and employee relations in managing risk and reputation.

From flexible working and gender equality to sustainability and inclusivity, consumer issues were at the heart of the liveliest discussions at this year’s Retail Week GC conference.

This is in stark contrast to previous years, where issues like data privacy and data ethics might have been further forward in people’s minds.

Thanks to the candid nature of the speakers and a smorgasbord of examples of initiatives that are working well, the tone was generally positive and, perhaps more importantly, collaborative.

Surviving the storm

Although controversial, company voluntary arrangements (CVAs) are an option for retailers facing financial difficulties. To do it properly – which is the only way to do it effectively – it requires stakeholder buying and complete dedication to the ultimate aim.

With more insolvencies likely to come this year, Carpetright’s was a timely tale of coming back from the brink and the integral role that GCs play in the process.

The price of sustainability

Retailers are not alone in needing to do more to reduce their impact on the environment.

The conference faced the elephant in the room: who will pay for these sustainability initiatives? The speakers were unanimous – offering more sustainable products and implementing more sustainable business practices can cost money, and consumers aren’t willing to pay the price.

Retailers need to work out how they’re going to face this conundrum. Interestingly, our research suggests that retailers are looking beyond plastic and waste to focus more heavily on carbon reduction and energy efficiency, which can help reduce costs and generate new revenue streams.

The proportion of UK retailers generating renewable energy is set to double, from 24% to 48%. Meanwhile the proportion switching their fleet to electric vehicles and providing charging points for customers is set to more than double, to 47% and 31% respectively.

What it means to be inclusive

According to Purple, there are more than 12 million disabled people in the UK with a combined spending power of £249 billion – the ‘Purple Pound’. They explained that retailers could be doing more to make online and offline shopping easier and more enjoyable for these people.

The message was “start small”, with some great examples of small differences making a big impact. This could be training shop staff in basic sign language, signing up to the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Lanyard Scheme, or allocating quiet times for customers with autism.

Creative ideas are encouraged, but bad or badly executed ideas can be very damaging. Having the right people involved, doing the necessary research and executing the right partnerships can help to ensure that inclusivity initiatives are effective and send the right message.

TLT was a proud sponsor of Chloe Ball-Hopkins’ TED Talk, Why isn't fashion inclusive of disabled people?, which explains her mission to create accessible, fashionable clothes for all.

Becoming more agile

The final takeaway was one that we’ve been tracking through our latest research reports: retailers need to become more agile so that they can adapt more quickly to new risks and opportunities as the market and consumer and employee interests and motivations evolve.

For example, if customers visit your stores on their way to and from work, then as soon as work patterns change you need to consider the impact and adapt accordingly.

Retailers know they need to respond to these new trends. The fact that these topics are so high on the agenda shows that the right conversations are being had, and changes are afoot.

PwC was right – in an environment of volatile consumer sentiment, you need to give people a reason to shop. You need to be accessible, convenient, curate the right products (and make it easy to purchase them), and communicate using the right channel. If customers are on Twitter and Instagram, retailers need to be using them to.

Download our report – Mission Impossible? Reconfiguring stores for the modern consumer – to discover how retailers are transforming their stores and the impact on jobs, staff, property, technology, data and the environment.