The inside track—insights into the retail sector with Dame Lucy Neville-Rolfe

Today sees the third of Lexis®PSL Commercial’s 'insight track' industry interviews.

In it, Dame Lucy Neville-Rolfe, parliamentary under-secretary of state at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and former group director of corporate affairs at Tesco, provides an insight into the retail sector.

How did you originally come to work in the retail sector?

I joined Tesco in 1997 from the Cabinet Office. I had been a senior civil servant at Number 10 Downing Street, the Department for Trade and Industry and what is now the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

What attracted you to this particular area?

I wanted a change from the Civil Service and wanted to work in business. I was offered a demanding and challenging role as group director of corporate affairs at Tesco, which excited me.

I was attracted to Tesco in particular because of its innovation, enterprise and passion for the customer. While I was there I led work on three Competition Commission inquiries and from 2003 I assumed responsibility for the legal department, joining the board in 2006.

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How does this fit into your career history?

I joined Tesco in 1997 after working in the Civil Service, most notably at what is now Defra and for the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit at Number 10.

Since leaving Tesco in January 2013 I have been made a life peer in the House of Lords, where I still passionately pursue the interests forged in my formative careers at the Civil Service and Tesco.

I have spoken on a range of issues including international retail, minimising regulatory burdens, competitiveness, broadband and vocational education.

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What do you think are the key challenges and opportunities facing the retail sector at the moment?

Let me start by saying the retail sector is still undervalued, not least as one of the nation’s biggest employers (especially of young people). It needs to be recognised that a strong and vibrant retail and consumer sector is vital in order to ensure a dynamic economy.

In terms of challenges that face the sector globally, it is (as for other businesses) fiscal deficits and excessive tax burdens.

In retail in particular, we face the challenge of the shift of consumers from supermarkets to more shopping online and close to home. There are, however, obvious opportunities in technology, new markets and in increasing consumer demand in developing countries.

How do you see your industry developing over the next five years and beyond?

A recent study suggested 80% of retail CEOs ranked ‘technological advances’ as one of the global trends that will transform their businesses most over the next five years. I totally agree. Technological innovation will bring great opportunities for the industry and help it to develop exponentially.

At Tesco, we were proud to introduce internet shopping 17 years ago to meet consumer interest, and in time we became the world’s largest online grocer. Internet shopping has replaced more of the custom previously enjoyed by physical shops. However, this is the way the world is moving and the retail sector needs to keep up and keep innovating.

Have you seen any changes to your audience?

Consumers want their goods ordered easily and they want them delivered fast. Technological advances in internet and mobile shopping are meeting this demand, which means fewer people are going out to the stores themselves. Of course, there are positives and negatives to this recent trend. For me, this is definitely the most conspicuous change in consumer behaviour and it looks to continue for a number of years.

A real bugbear of mine, which I have regularly aired in the Lords, is the slow roll-out of broadband in many areas of the UK. Everywhere should have the opportunity to embrace technological advance, which really makes all our lives much easier—not only in shopping, but in interacting with government, utilities, and each other.

What are the key challenges facing your sector and how have you reacted to meet them?

Volatile raw materials prices are a concern for the retail and consumer industry. I believe the industry will have to make some changes to the supply chain in response to these transformative global trends.

In addition, a major challenge could be posed by the economic rise of Asia. However, this is also a terrific opportunity for the retail sector.

Take India for example— which is an emerging market, with an increasingly young and vibrant population, burgeoning middle-class and hungry consumer appetite. All this adds up to opportunities for the sector.

At Tesco we understood the local needs and local customs, and employed local people. This way, you have the right products in the right place and at the right time.

How do you view the provision of legal advice in the retail sector?

It is very important because we interact with so many different regulatory regimes—here, in Brussels, and at local level. I was proud to build up a strong legal team of different nationalities, as Tesco expanded into 13 markets across the globe.

What do you expect from your lawyers?

I expect an understanding of the business, good judgment and talented people. I also like my advisers to write in clear, simple English. Finally, they need to give me honest, impartial legal advice.

Are there any features of your interaction with lawyers that you’d like to change?

I have already talked about simple English. I would also like to see less regulation in Britain and Brussels. Even since leaving Tesco, I still have frequent interactions with lawyers through my work as President of EuroCommerce, the Brussels-based retail and wholesale trade association, and with one of my sons (who is training as a commercial lawyer).

 

So what do you think? Where is the retail sector heading and what are its biggest challenges? Do let us have your thoughts below.

In the meantime, why not check out these articles on Dame Lucy Neville-Rolfe courtesy of The Telegraph:

https://twitter.com/TeleFinance/status/362911794743881728

https://twitter.com/TeleFinance/status/364286676710850560

Interviewed by Anne Bruce. The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor. This interview first appeared in Lexis®PSL Commercial and was conducted on 1 May 2014.

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