Friday 29 March 2019 1:51 pm

Five retail tips for small businesses worried about Brexit

So much of the political debate over Brexit has focused on the impact on big business. The banks, multinational drug companies, carmakers, and other corporate pressure groups have been leading the conversation.

But Brexit also impacts the hundreds of thousands of small businesses that employ most Britons and are the heartbeat of the economy.

Read more: If nothing else, Brexit has taught us how mediocre our politicians are

There is no question that it’s a time of great uncertainty for all businesses as we approach the Brexit deadline, but it’s particularly difficult for small firms that can’t rely on a big head offices to do their Brexit planning.

Directors of small businesses have to keep their wits about them, and use their own judgement to keep their companies alive and thriving. That will certainly be tested in the days ahead. Here are a few of my reflections based on some of the defining moments in my career at John Lewis.

Assess different scenarios

At John Lewis, we used to keep it simple and compare a base case, an optimistic case, and a worst case. What would you do if sales fell by 10 per cent or 20 per cent?

Don’t put too many complex scenarios into your plans. In particular, leave the political forecasting to the pundits – after all, we’ve seen how volatile the climate in Westminster is. You can easily waste time second-guessing for not much practical benefit.

Focus on your critical lines of supply

Have a clear view of where you source your products or components, and understand your route to your customers. Think about which are your critical suppliers, and the effect if they went under. Also consider how you get your goods to market, and what would happen if there were severe travel disruptions.

Prioritise like a battlefield surgeon

Make sure that the most important parts of your business are the ones that you focus your immediate efforts on. For example, do what you can to conserve cash in case there is disruption.

Longer-term decisions, such as which markets you focus on to source your products, can wait until things have settled down. When we faced a systems outage on Black Friday, our technology team focused on fixing the most important systems first, knowing that it would take hours – if not days in some cases – to get everything back online.

Communicate confidently

Individuals in your company will be worried; your suppliers and your customers will have their own worries. Though you can’t be confident about everything, you can give significant reassurance by being clear about what you do know and passing it on.

One Christmas when the tills were down in Oxford Street, we had to communicate to every partner in the store again and again that it was business as usual, so that they could pass the messages on to our customers.

Attack when the time comes

Even though it seems like a long way off, we will eventually get to stability and certainty in a new post-Brexit world. There will be opportunities, and to stay ahead of your competition, you will need to seize them and move quickly. We’ve seen how businesses that don’t adapt and innovate go obsolete overnight.

Read more: Lidington warns Tory MPs they must respect May’s Brexit deal

Technology is moving at breakneck speed. After the 2008 downturn, we saw the opportunity of building our presence online, and developing new models like Click and Collect, and went after it hard.

The bottom line? You might not be Prime Minister, or the leader of the opposition, but your actions will matter just as much to your employees and customers.

Andy Street is mayor of the West Midlands and former managing director of John Lewis.

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