Get rid of the red tape and let Island retailers flourish

BUSINESS COMMENT: Gerald Voisin

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IoD Jersey’s annual Leaders’ Lunch is taking place on 25 November. It is an opportunity for former, current and future leaders of our Island to help inform the debate ahead of next year’s elections. All industry sectors are encouraged to get involved as we attempt to re-set following the pandemic and Brexit. Prior to the lunch, IoD Jersey is speaking to a range of industry experts to get their thoughts on the way ahead with constructive and achievable suggestions. This week, it’s the turn of Retail. Gerald Voisin is the owner of Voisins, which has been in his family for six generations. Despite the often foreboding news headlines, he’s very positive about the future of retail.

Q: Even before the Covid lockdown, the high street was said to be in terminal decline. Have the last two years been a complete disaster for retail?

Gerald: Retail consists of food retail and non-food retail and here there are local businesses and UK-based companies. Food retail in Jersey has done well through the pandemic because all the restaurants were closed which meant everyone had to buy food from supermarkets. They don’t have a problem, other than the post-pandemic issue of getting supplies. In terms of the non-food retailers, it’s the UK-based businesses that have had a bad time with some high-profile bankruptcies. These were for a variety of reasons, but some were already weak going into the pandemic. Jersey’s empty stores are mainly because a group of UK retailers went bankrupt.

I think Jersey retail is doing OK. You just have to look at the number of small empty stores that have been occupied by local retailers, and that’s very positive. It’s now not as attractive as it used to be for a UK store to open here. There are several UK businesses that don’t have a physical presence in the Island, but are advertising their websites locally. That’s why it’s doubly important to encourage local business.

Q. One of the main issues that many retailers complained about was the high cost of rents. Is this still holding retail back?

Gerald: Rents have fallen massively. They fell after the last financial crisis and have fallen again. It’s also worth remembering that King Street and Queen Street were dominated by local retailers in the 1950s and 60s, and it was property developers and UK retailers who squeezed local retailers out of the market, and what we’re seeing now is a reversal of that.

Q. What about the internet threat?

Gerald: We’ve got to accept that no one is going to put the internet back in its can, and it’s also a wonderful thing. People can get whatever they want online, so it’s good for society and local retail has got to adjust to that. This means that selling a commodity product is not going to be the future for retail in Jersey.

A lot of our shops in King Street and Queen Street, on the southern side, are quite small and lend themselves to small, interesting boutiques so, if anything, I think there is opportunity.

Q. What would you say to Islanders and to those who are standing for election next year?

Gerald: We must improve economic growth in the Island and policy makers have to encourage people to go into business and encourage small businesses to grow. This isn’t just a retail problem, it’s a Jersey problem and it’s holding back our economy. There are too many laws, rules and regulations that we expect micro businesses to abide by, which are the same as for large businesses in Jersey. The trouble is that the onus on a small business is much greater because they are small. A member of staff taking a year’s maternity leave, for example, is going to have a much bigger impact if you only have two staff, compared to 100. There should be an element of trust and a different set of rules for micro businesses. Even in France, you have employment rules that only businesses over a certain number of employees have to stick to. It would be a shame if policy makers interfere with the entrepreneurial spirit and extinguish it with too much regulation.

There is too much bureaucracy and red tape that restricts businesses. For example, there is a ridiculous planning assumption against restaurants in King Street and Queen Street. If an entrepreneur is prepared to put money into a business and back it, then they should be allowed to do it. Having a can-do attitude rather than ‘you can’t do that’, would benefit us all. Going into business is high risk, so we need to reduce that risk and up the rewards.

The policy makers need to relearn the concepts of enabling business instead of constantly passing regulations to control businesses.

Let’s remember that we need a higher proportion of Islanders starting and growing their own business than most other countries do. They keep dividends in Jersey upon which they pay tax, unlike foreign-owned businesses that don’t pay tax on local profits.

Q. What would you say to fellow retailers?

Gerald: The customer has more power than ever before and if your business is not focused on the customer, then you are going to have a problem. You have to be entirely focused on providing the customer with what they want. The other issue is sustainability. It’s really key and there are lots of opportunities to cater for people who want to be more sustainable in their lives.

Q. Are you positive about the future of retail?

Gerald: We have more local retailers in King Street now than we’ve had for years. We need more, and they are going to be customer-focused and doing something completely different, so we have a diverse shopping experience. If we can do that and look after the people who work for us, then I see nothing but positivity. It’s a great business to be in. Who wants to sit in an office all day? If you want to meet people and have fun, then retail is where you should be.

lIoD Jersey’s Leaders’ Lunch is sponsored by HSBC, and takes place on Thursday 25 November at the Royal Yacht Hotel & Spa. Tickets can be purchased via Eventbrite. Further information on the IoDJersey website: https://www.iod.je/news-and-events/events.

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