LONDON — With COVID-19 lingering and the final Brexit deadline looming, the British government is looking to boost the future prospects of consumer and retail businesses with a toolkit meant to strengthen exports and e-commerce.
Earlier this year the government offered financial support to small businesses and backed a 35.4 billion pound, nationwide furlough scheme, but this latest move, by the U.K. Department of International Trade, isn’t about money.
Instead, it wants to offer training, consulting and guidance to businesses looking to recover from COVID-19, and to transition to a new normal of trading outside the European Union.
While the U.K. officially left the EU on Jan. 31, it is still in a transition period, trading with the bloc as normal and adhering to its rules. On Dec. 31 all of that will end, and the U.K. will no longer be part of the EU customs union and the single market.
The U.K. has spent the past nine months negotiating free trade agreements with countries including the U.S., Japan, Australia and New Zealand, and is currently locked in fractious talks with the EU about what their future trading relationship will look like.
On Tuesday, the Department of International Trade said its new measures would offer “immediate support to businesses” by tapping specialists to provide advice on online retail and international marketplaces.
The DIT is also launching a Consumer and Retail Export Academy that will look to provide businesses with the “knowledge, skills and networks needed” to increase exports.
The government office said that e-commerce is at the heart of its plans and it has crafted measures meant to help consumer and retail businesses develop international, multichannel and e-commerce strategies “fit for the changed retail environment.”
According to the body, the value of online retail sales has risen by more than 300 percent in the last 10 years, with the trend expected to continue as a result of the coronavirus. The value of retail sales in the U.K. reached 395 billion pounds in 2019, a 3.8 percent increase on the previous year.
“We recognize that the coronavirus has brought challenges to many industries, not least the consumer and retail sector, where so much depends on face-to-face interactions. This package of support will give businesses the helping hand they need to adapt their methods and thrive in the future,” said Graham Stuart, a Member of Parliament and minister for exports.
“More trade and investment is absolutely critical if the industry — and our whole economy — is to overcome such challenges. These measures provide both short and long-term support for businesses that employ so many people across the U.K.,” he added.
Retail, already an ailing sector in the U.K., has been devastated by the impact of COVID-19, with job losses rising to 235,704 this year and store closures reaching 20,620, according to the Centre for Retail Research.
Many British retail chains have collapsed, while the big stores — Harrods, Selfridges, John Lewis, Harvey Nichols and Marks & Spencer — have all slashed jobs.
On top of the COVID-19 crisis and prepping for trade post-Brexit, British businesses have been dealing with onerous tariffs on exports to the U.S., a retaliatory measure in the Airbus/Boeing dispute.
Helen Brocklebank, chief executive officer of Walpole, which represents high-end consumer businesses across a variety of sectors, said the organization welcomed “the measures and support” from the DIT.
“This new package of support will be incredibly beneficial to all businesses. Eighty percent of British luxury goods in value terms is destined for export markets including the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea and the Middle East and, while face-to-face sales to non-U.K. resident customers on our own soil remains crucial, this support will enable businesses to maximize revenues in very trying circumstances. This will be an incredible boost, particularly to the SMEs that form the backbone of British luxury, exporting British creativity, craftsmanship and design to the world,” she said.
According to Walpole, British luxury brands support more than 160,000 sustainable and skilled jobs around the U.K., and contribute 48 billion pounds a year to the economy.
“The pandemic and the inability and reluctance of visitors to travel to our shores has had a devastating impact on those businesses,” Brocklebank added.